Another year, another record: Idaho’s supplemental levy bill keeps climbing

Idaho property owners will pay out nearly $214 million in supplemental tax levies this year — setting another record, for the fourth successive school year.

The supplemental tax levy bill was $202.2 million a year ago.

And this year, as in previous years, the vast majority of Idaho’s 115 school districts will rely on supplemental levies. This year, 92 districts will collect a levy — from $20 million in Coeur d’Alene to $75,000 in Mackay. A year ago, 93 districts collected a levy.

The increasing supplemental levies are something of a good-news, bad-news proposition, State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield said Monday.

“I think this demonstrates how committed the majority of local patrons are to making up the growing difference in what is needed and what is provided by the state,” she said. “We have to find a way to address this in an equitable way. Some lawmakers are talking about this and I encourage them to keep after it.”

How we got here

The new numbers represent a new chapter in what is, by now, a familiar story.

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District officials and trustees have long maintained that voter-approved levies are no longer “supplemental.” Instead, they say, the funding is needed to fill in budget gaps and pay for essential needs, such as staff salaries and benefits, classroom computers and school safety upgrades.

Idaho’s supplemental levies have proliferated over the past decade. Many districts sought additional money during the Great Recession, in an attempt to offset unprecedented state K-12 budget cuts. Some education leaders have said the tipping point actually came in August 2006, when former Gov. Jim Risch and Republican legislators agreed on a plan to slash school property taxes by $260 million and use a sales tax increase to cover $210 million of the difference.

Either way, the levy bill has only grown over time — even after the recession, and despite state budgets that have increased K-12 spending by $100 million a year for the past five years.

Going to the polls

On Tuesday, voters in three districts will decide the fate of supplemental levies.

Lake Pend Oreille voters will decide whether to approve an indefinite $12.7 million-a-year levy, while Nampa and Minidoka County will consider two-year levies.

The Lake Pend Oreille proposal is an outlier: Districts can only seek an indefinite levy under narrow conditions. Most levies come up for renewal every one or two years.

In most cases, districts receive the majority support they need to pass or renew a levy, and many proposals pass easily. But there are exceptions, and failed levies sometimes have serious ramifications. When Kamiah voters rejected a $500,000 levy in March, the north-central Idaho district decided to close its middle school and split the students between the elementary school and the high school.

“Board members, administrators, teachers, and patrons can all agree that asking for property tax levies are not the preferred — nor are they always an advantageous — method of meeting the daily operational needs in their schools,” said Quinn Perry, the Idaho School Boards Association’s policy and government affairs director.

A question of equity

The new numbers raise old questions about equity.

“The use of supplemental levies has been an increasing concern, as many districts are using levies to augment salaries to recruit and retain teachers and staff and to support day-to-day operational needs,” state superintendent Sherri Ybarra said Tuesday. “This has created equity and sustainability issues across the state. I am hopeful that policymakers will continue looking for solutions to these funding challenges.”

Idaho Education Association President Kari Overall voiced similar concerns.

“Too many school districts, including most rural districts, face insufficient state funding and the unpredictability of local levies,” she said Tuesday. “Even more concerning: districts that cannot pass levies deal with significant hardships that directly impact students.”

A Boise-based nonprofit think tank has spent years studying inequities in the school funding system.

In a June report, the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy said the money generated through local levies can vary widely from community to community. In North Idaho’s Mullan School District, supplemental levies account for $6,818 per student; in Southeast Idaho’s West Side district, a voter-approved levy generates $119 per student. On top of that, communities with higher numbers of students of color also tend to be poorer — with a smaller property tax base to absorb a school levy.

And that, in turn, means some districts will have more trouble recruiting and retaining teachers, said Sasha O’Connell, the center’s senior policy analyst.

“Our reliance on supplemental levies raises equity concerns for both students and taxpayers,” she said. “Simply put, districts with less property wealth have a harder time generating local funding.”

Gov. Brad Little did not respond to requests for comment.

Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report.

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