When I attended the Kansas City, Kansas, School Board meeting recently at the district office, there was considerable discussion about the 2012-2013 budget. I couldn’t help but recall may days in a one-room rural school and its budget.

     As I remember the annual budget (for nine months) was about $5,000. Most of that money went to the teacher– about $3,500. She was the only paid staff member. That left about $500 for miscellaneous expenses– mostly coal for the furnace– and a capital budget of about $1,000. When the schoolhouse needed a new roof, district residents showed up and did the work for free. All kids got to and from school on their own. Each student was responsible for his or her books and lunch. The teacher taught all subjects to students who were in eight grades.

     There were 21 students at New Union School in rural Franklin County– it was about 60 miles southwest of Kansas City. Its 1949-1950 budget meant that the school spent about $238 per student. In today’s dollars, allowing for inflation at about 3 percent a year, the cost for such a student would be about $4,500.

     As Kansas developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were many one-room schools.  However, as more and more people migrated from the farm to urban and suburban areas, the one-room school became a museum relic.

     I looked at the Kansas City, Kansas, District budget and did a little quick math. Total budgeted expenditures for the coming year are nearly $337 million. Assuming there will be about 21,000 students, that would mean the district could spend about $16,000 a student. I seriously doubt if the typical student here will receive four times the education I received some 60 years ago.

     The good news is that the School Board has held the line when it comes to local property taxes for next year. Of its total budget, only about $38.5 million will come from local property taxes.

     Dr. Kelli Mather, the financial boss for the school district, attempted to explain the budget. I have little doubt that Dr. Mather knows her numbers. But since I had only a brief synopsis of the agenda, I had difficulty following the good doctor’s scenario, despite her Power-Point presentation. I did understand that the budget is consistent with board goals of quality instruction. Dr. Cindy Lane, the district superintendent, attempted a few times to complement Dr. Mather’s comments.

     The “new kid” on the board, Christal Watson, also expressed frustration with the budget presentation. Watson got little sympathy from Board President Gloria Willis. Earlier in the meeting, Watson tried to nominate George Breidenthal as Board President; Breidenthal respectively declined.

     What I did not see in Dr. Mather’s presentation and in my copy of the scant summary agenda was the official budget form the State of Kansas prescribes. Taxpayers in the district need to know the basics and what it will mean for their tax bills next year. To the district’s credit, the full agenda is online; I was able to find it later.

     A few months ago, I attended a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce’s Legislative Committee. Dr. Lane and Dave Trabet of the Kansas Policy Institute had quite a spirited discussion about school finance. Neither agreed much as they presented conflicting numbers and claims; however, they did agree that changes are needed with present state school finance.

     The Institute is based in Wichita and has several conservative connections. Some of the Institute’s critics claim the very wealthy Koch family bankrolls it. (Koch Industries include refining and manufacturing.) However, a spokesperson for the Institute said it does not reveal its donors, as it is a private corporation.

     Kansas City, Kansas, schools are quite stable compared to most other U.S. urban districts. One only has to look over town to a district that once had about 70,000 students and now has less than 20,000. Nonetheless, the district here has suffered and continues to suffer as the community has lost its middle class; in the early 1970s, the district had more than 30,000 students.

     A few weeks ago, a fellow Business West member and I called on a senior executive with major Wyandotte County business. The executive had just moved here; this executive’s peers told him not to live in Kansas City, Kansas, because of the schools. This issue will continue until the School Board and its staff first admit the problem and then decide to act.

     A couple of years ago I made my annual plea on behalf of Business West to the School Board, asking it to hold the line on taxes. I said the district could gain an estimated $3 million more in property taxes if all its professional staff would live here. That could have saved many teachers that the district was forced to fire. These school teachers and administrators could be a very important sector of that all-important middle class this community desperately needs.

     Business West, along with other neighborhood associations, has pledged to help all Wyandotte County public and private school districts in developing student internships. Another project this group has discussed is recruiting college students to live and work here. I would ask school officials to cooperate.

Murrel Bland is the former editor of the Wyandotte West and the Piper Press. He is executive director of Business West.