December 7, 2023

Keeping Media and Government Accountable.

School funding facts fudged in USD 497 Lawrence

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The USD 497 Lawrence school district is dramatically under-reporting budget numbers to the public, it appears, and the local paper reports the misleading budget numbers as fact.

The Lawrence Journal-World reports in a July 21 story, “With new funding, the school board is expected to consider a $105.4 million overall budget… which is about $4.3 million more than last year’s $101.1 million budget, according to budget documents.”

The presentation given to board members and journalists at the meeting is dramatically different from last year’s budget summary provided to the state department of education and posted on the district’s website.

“There’s no way their real budget is $105 million–not when (USD 497) spent $147 million in 2018 and budgeted to spend $171 million this past school year,” says Kansas Policy Institute President Dave Trabert.  “They may just be showing spending out of one fund in their presentation, but districts routinely spend money out of a dozen or more funds.”

The Lawrence daily paper missed the discrepancy in its reporting of USD 497’s budget process.

A Journal-World editor explained in a July 26 email to KPI they “…haven’t found anything nefarious yet in the way the numbers are presented, but certainly will call the district out on it if we do.”

In its story, the LJW reports that district officials anticipate receiving $4.3 million in new funding for the next school year, thanks to a new school finance formula that will add about $4 million in fresh money to USD 497 coffers. The local option budget, funded by local property taxes, will add another $300,000 in new money.   

But if the district is only talking about one of several funds, the total increase could be much more.

“Unfortunately, school districts pretty frequently don’t tell the whole story,” Trabert says. “They routinely put out incomplete information.” 

Trabert says media shouldn’t accept school district claims at face value.

“Media should be able to rely on local government officials to produce accurate, honest information, but they should know by now that they can’t,” Trabert says. “They should be using President Reagan’s admonition to trust, but verify.”

The Lawrence school board will vote on whether to adopt a budget proposal on Aug. 12.  

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