JEFFERSON CITY - On Tuesday, Missouri voters will get a chance to do what the federal courts did -- stick a tax on Kansas City residents without their approval.
The fact that Kansas Citians don't get to decide their own school levy is a secondary issue to most state legislators, who passed the bill last year that put Constitutional Amendment 3 on the ballot.
"If that (passage) doesn't happen, there's no way we can sustain that district," said Sen. Bill Kenney, R-Lee's Summit. "The state will take over and we'll continue to pay millions more, which comes out of the general revenue."
The amendment would allow the Kansas City school board to set, without a vote of residents, the school levy at a rate of $4.95 per $100 of assessed valuation. The current rate is $4.96. If the amendment fails, the rate reverts to $2.75, the highest levy permitted under the Constitution without voters' approval.
The constitution mandates that two-thirds of the voters pass a levy higher than $3.75. Kansas City is the only school district in the state where the levy is set by federal court order.
"This doesn't impose a tax," said Sen. Phil Curls, D-Kansas City. "It allows the local school board to maintain the levy by a simply majority (vote) of the school board."
Proponents of the amendment say a $2.75 rate is too low a budget for the Kansas City schools. They'll be in danger of collapsing, they say, and if that happens, the state's taxpayers will have to bail out the district.
Opponents say the issue is taxation without representation, and local control over local schools. Today, the Kansas City levy, they warn. Tomorrow, maybe your tax levy.
"The citizens of Missouri have been duped into this," said Rep. David Levin, R-St. Louis County. "What's to prevent the legislature from doing this to their subdivision? It's beyond me how anyone could support this from a Constitutional point of view."
Levin said he's voting against the amendment. He said people who say the greater issue of ensuring the Kansas City school district remains solvent are rationalizing their votes.
"The Constitution protects the minority from the majority," Levin said. "One of those protections is certainly from taxation without representation."
The Kansas City school district has received about $1.3 billion from the state since a federal court found two decades ago that there was unequal education for black and whites in the school district there. It ruled the state was partly responsible, and had to pay to improve the situation.
Since then, Kansas City has been using some its annual state payments to build schools they hoped would attract white suburban students to the mainly black inner-city schools. The state will send $110 million in desegregation payments this year.
These payments are scheduled to stop next year, because the parties in the original desegregation lawsuit have settled their court case, brought in 1977.
Rowena Conklin is the campaign education coordinator for Missourians for Our Local Schools, a group of businesses and education groups helping fund support and TV commercials for Amendment 3.
"The purpose of this is to get the courts out of the business of running the public schools, and to stop the drain of money from the rest of the state to the Kansas City school district," Conklin said.
"If the school district doesn't have the money to fund itself," Conklin said, either the courts will step back in, or the state will have to take over the Kansas City school district. That's why it's important to all voters of the state to pass Amendment 3."
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