Use Technology and Maintenance Funds Wisely

The Kirkwood School Board has warned that class sizes will increase and teachers may be laid off because of the failure of Prop A.

Want to have the money to pay for 10 or 20 teachers without passing a tax hike? Read on.

Two funds, one for technology and the other for maintenance, should be tapped.

If the board believes it needs voter approval to change the way the funds are spent, PUT THE ISSUE BEFORE THE VOTERS.

The two funds are each financed by levies passed by voters in 1993. (The technology levy is 20 cents; the maintenance tax started at 5 cents and grew to 20 cents in 2007.)

The two funds are each expected to produce about $2.6 million for the 2016-207 school year for a total of over $5.2 million.

Do those two functions -- maintenance and technology -- each need $2.6 million every year? 

The size of those funds seems to have created within the board an urgency to spend, with little regard for public sentiment.

The maintenance fund was used in 2012 to help finance the football stadium renovation that had been rejected by voters two years earlier.

Many residents questioned the board's wisdom in spending $1.8 million in technology funds over several years to equip every student, K through 12, with an iPad.  Other districts have taken a more measured approach in acquiring expensive technology that often becomes quickly outdated.  There is now a debate about whether the Chromebook is a better educational choice than the iPad.  Chromebooks cost about half as much as an iPad and include keyboards for typing test answers and papers more easily.

But with a technology fund generating over $2 million every year, money has to be spent, right?

E.J. Miller, then board president, seemed to acknowledge that dynamic at a May 2014 board meeting when questions were raised about the iPad expenditure.  Miller said, "Let's not forget we have a technology fund to continuously upgrade and refresh our technology."

 In other words, if the iPads are a bad idea, don't worry: Money is not a problem.

When the two funds were approved in 1993, they were intended to keep the district on the cutting edge of technology and to ensure proper maintenance of district property.  That is what school boards should do as a matter of course.  Districts like Lindbergh, Clayton and Webster Groves have not seen the need for such funds.  And Lindbergh and Clayton regularly outperform Kirkwood in academic achievement testing.

Together, the two funds represent 9.4 percent of district revenue in the current school year. Like the rest of Kirkwood tax revenue, their growth in the last decade (28 percent) has significantly outpaced the growth in the Consumer Price Index (17 percent) because of rising property values.  Has the board considered whether that 9.4 percent is a proper allocation of resources?  Most people have noticed that technology, for instance, has become a lot cheaper over the last decade.

The 1993 ballot language makes it clear that the two funds are part of the operating tax levy and are to be used for technology and maintenance.

Our research indicates no clear legal requirements on how the board can allocate money in the two funds as conditions change. (The board, in our view, was very elastic in finding a way to use the funds to help finance the journalism. band and stadium rebuild project in 2012.)

Our recommendation to the board: Use common sense. Stop locking up dollars in restricted funds beyond what the voters visualized so that the money can be spent on our most important need, to hire and place good teachers in the classroom. 

If we can free up $1 million from these funds, 10 teachers could be retained or hired. A $2 million reallocation would finance 20 teachers.

If it takes a legal opinion, GET IT.  If it needs to go before voters, DO IT.  

Sources: Kirkwood School District 2016-2017 Budget Book.