Across Idaho, levy election day approaches

Discovery Elementary School
Lauri Wright works with her fifth-graders at Meridian’s Discovery Elementary School. The state’s largest school district is seeking a two-year, $28 million levy on March 11.

While the 2014 Legislature debates K-12 funding, the issue will hit home across the state on March 11.

That’s when school districts from Meridian to Lakeland to Firth will go to voters seeking supplemental property tax levies. Across the state, the message from advocates is basically the same: As schools dig their way of out the recession, the “supplemental” dollars are needed to maintain programs and head off drastic cuts.

Certainly, school levies have become more common. In 2013-14, 94 of the state’s 115 school districts are relying on supplemental levies to shore up budgets, up from 61 districts in 2008-09. “I think it’s pretty good evidence of the Legislature underfunding education,” said Jim Weatherby, a Boise State University professor emeritus and longtime Idaho political observer.

The 2014 Legislature appears poised to backfill district budgets somewhat. Both Gov. Butch Otter and state superintendent Tom Luna want to put $35 million back into districts’ “operational” funding, a catchall budget item that can pay for everything from health insurance to transportation to utilities. But this $35 million would represent an incremental step. When growth is taken into account, Otter’s office figures it would take $113 million to make the schools whole.

Penni Cyr
Penni Cyr, Idaho Education Association

Because of that, says Idaho Education Association President Penni Cyr, it’s business as usual on March 11. “There’s been a sense of urgency for the past several years.”

Schools are still playing funding catchup — as legislative leaders concede.

Even if the Legislature fully funds Otter’s K-12 request — and funds the teacher pay raises and leadership “premiums” that aren’t in his budget request — K-12 funding will remain $50 million behind 2009 funding, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, told reporters Monday.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley

“Some of the worn places have worn through in some school districts,” House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley,  said this week. “I don’t dispute that.”

But Bedke sees the levies as a form of local option. In most districts, including his home district in Cassia County, patrons step up and support proposals from their locally elected school trustees. When voters say no, there’s usually a good reason for it — especially in small-town districts. “Everybody kind of knows what’s going on in the schools, more or less.”

For a statewide perspective, here’s a rundown of some of the bigger levies on the ballot.

Meridian: Two years, $28 million.

What’s at stake: At the height of the recession, Meridian cut 14 days from the school calendar. The current levy, which expires in June, allowed the state’s largest school district to restore nine of these school days. If voters do not keep the levy on the books, the district says it will be forced to cut class days and teaching positions.

The bottom line: Meridian is banking on rising property values in its levy campaign. Even if the levy is renewed, school taxes will drop by $31 per $100,000 of taxable value.

Lakeland: Two years, $9.59 million.

What’s at stake: If this levy isn’t renewed, the North Idaho district says it would need to impose a 20 percent budget cut, increasing class sizes, reducing staff and eliminating programs.

The bottom line: Like Meridian, Lakeland says taxes will drop. This year’s levy would replace a two-year, $9.9 million levy, resulting in a drop in tax rates of about $10 per $100,000 of taxable value.

Vallivue: Two years, $9 million.

What’s at stake: Continuing the levy would allow the district to put money into technology, textbooks and supplies, as well as a host of programs designed to encourage students to pursue postsecondary education — such as Advanced Placement and concurrent enrollment.

Back to the polls: In May, Vallivue voters approved a $50 million bond issue. The district’s second high school, to build a new high school, Ridgevue, will go online in 2016.

Nampa: Two years, $6.78 million.

What’s at stake: The Nampa district has imposed 13 unpaid furlough days in 2013-14, as it digs out of a $5 million shortfall. The district says the levy will restore the five classroom days that were cut from this year’s calendar, restore teacher training days and fill about half of its 46 vacant teaching positions.

Budget crisis fallout: If passed, this would be Nampa’s third successful supplemental levy since August 2012. The district says it will erase its shortfall by June 30, regardless of the outcome of the levy election. The levy does include a $2,500 line item, to pay for an audit.

Caldwell: Two years, $5.5 million.

What’s at stake: Caldwell is seeking to renew an existing levy. The district says the money will be used to maintain academic and professional-technical programs and extracurriculars, such as music, athletics and physical education.

Soundbite: “The supplemental levy is no longer ‘supplemental,’” said School Board Chairman Chuck Stout. “It is essential to provide fundamental quality programs for Caldwell students.”

Minidoka County: Two years, $3.9 million.

What’s at stake: Technology is a key piece of this proposal. Plans include district-wide high-speed Internet and WiFi andcomputing devices for students and staff.

The bottom line: This levy would replace a $1.2 million-a-year property tax.

Cassia County: Two years, $1.55 million.

What’s at stake: On the books since the 1970s, the district uses its levy for everything from supplies to insurance, transportation to technology. This year’s levy renewal includes a $93,000-a-year increase earmarked for textbooks.

The bottom line: With the increase, the levy’s tax rate will go up. The cost would be $59.53 per $100,000 of taxable value, a $7.15 increase.

More data here: Go to our data center to look at 20 years of school levy trends.

Bond issues on the ballot

In addition, two big Idaho school districts are pursuing building bond issues on March 11. The Twin Falls School District is seeking $73.8 million, and the Bonneville School District has a $92 million bond issue on the ballot. Bond issues are different than supplemental levies. They involve long-term financing of building projects, and require a two-thirds supermajority to pass. Idaho has historically funded school building projects through local bond issues, not state taxes.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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