Analysis: A repeat levy, and a familiar debate over school elections

Right now, the West Ada School District is a case study in budget uncertainty.

Come next year, West Ada could be a case study in the debate over school elections.

That’s because patrons in Idaho’s largest school district rejected a two-year, $28 million supplemental levy earlier this month. This week, West Ada trustees voted to put the same levy on the Aug. 25 ballot.

Trustees hope to get to yes the second time around, so West Ada can preserve classroom days and staff positions without drawing down budget reserves. But the decision is not without political risk, since many lawmakers already want to clamp down on school elections.

Earlier this year, the House passed two bills that would have done just that.

One bill would have required school districts and other local governments to wait 11 months before running “repeat” bond issues. (West Ada’s proposal is a property tax levy, not a bond issue, but this 48-21 House vote offers a glimpse into legislative will.)

A second bill — more germane to the West Ada issue — would have required school districts to run levies or bond issues in May or November, eliminating March and August elections. This bill also passed easily, by a 45-20 margin, but also never got a Senate hearing.

Rep. Wendy Horman says she has an identical election consolidation bill ready for the 2021 session, but she’s weighing options about a rewrite. In the meantime, the Idaho Falls Republican says she isn’t surprised to hear that West Ada will rerun its levy in two months.

The recurring criticism of “repeat” ballot measures goes like this: A taxing entity, refusing to take no for an answer, simply keeps pressing the issue until voters finally give in.

But West Ada has a practical reason for running its levy again in August, district spokesman Eric Exline said this week.

Without a $14 million levy, accounting for 5 percent of its budget, West Ada would cover most of the difference by withdrawing $11.3 million from reserves. But if the levy passes, West Ada will leave its $27 million in savings untouched and head off some spending cuts — such as leaving 10 certified jobs and 10 classified jobs unfilled. Passing a levy in August poses cashflow issues, since the election comes almost two months into a school budget year. But if the levy passes, West Ada would be able to keep its fund balance intact, knowing $14 million in property taxes are coming in, Exline said.

And that, said Horman, disproves something education leaders said during their testimony against her bill. Arguing to maintain the March elections — still, by far, the most common date to run school levies — they said they needed the time to get a levy on the books before a new budget year begins on July 1.

West Ada might not be the only district taking another run at a levy. Middleton school administrators want to put a levy on the August ballot, after voters rejected a two-year, $3 million proposal this spring. That leaves the Canyon County district looking at several cost-cutting options: furlough days, salary cuts, transportation cutbacks and student athletics fees. “We just really feel like we’re not going to be able to do the job we want for our students,” acting Superintendent Kristin Beck said Wednesday.

The decision on the levy will fall to the embattled district’s three remaining trustees. They are scheduled to take up the issue on June 29.

Beck doesn’t think Middleton’s ongoing administrative churn played a role in the failed levy — but says the coronavirus and the resulting economic downturn did. Exline attributes West Ada’s vote to a menu of coronavirus-related causes: economic worries, an inability to get the word out through civil groups and Chamber of Commerce presentations, and mixed reviews for West Ada’s sudden transition to remote learning this spring.

Voter sentiments might not change much in August. But voter turnout might.

The spring levies shared a ballot with contested party primaries. And Idaho’s first-ever vote-by-mail primary proved popular with voters: The 37 percent turnout was the highest for an Idaho primary in four decades.

Don’t expect a repeat in late August.

But then again, Exline doesn’t expect turnout to crater, either. The district will send out mailers to every residence. Meanwhile, 90 percent of the patrons who voted this spring will automatically receive August ballots by mail. That’s because they requested this service when they voted in the primary.

“You’re going to get many of the same voters participating, for sure,” Exline said.

And the district might have a point, Horman said Wednesday. She said she’ll be curious to see what the turnout looks like in August.

Either way, we haven’t heard the last of the debate over funding in West Ada — or the debate over school elections.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.

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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