Balukoff hints at tax changes for schools

In a lunchtime roundtable with teachers — and in Sean Porter’s high school government class — the first question for A.J. Balukoff was virtually the same.

“So how are you going to help funding, if you get in?” asked Beth Woodruff, special education director and middle and high school resource room teacher in Idaho City. “Is anything going to change?”

“It needs to change,” said Balukoff. The longtime Boise school trustee and Democratic candidate for governor offered no specifics, but indicated he might want to provide school districts with renewed taxing authority.

Balukoff Idaho City, 9.2.14
Gubernatorial candidate A.J. Balukoff also fielded questions about the minimum wage, wolves and welfare fraud during a talk with an Idaho City High School government class.

On Tuesday, with a videographer in tow, Balukoff took his campaign to Idaho City, a historic mining town about an hour from Boise. The campaign stop, nine weeks before the Nov. 4 election, was designed to spotlight the funding plights facing small-town school districts.

Idaho City is caught in a numbers trap. Enrollment is increasing — 189 seventh- through 12th-graders are attending the high school this year, up from 165 the previous year. But since 2008, the Basin School District has cut staffing from 72 to 53, including cuts in faculty.

The result: In a district that has tried to keep class sizes down to a maximum of 20 students, some class sizes have swelled to the mid-30s.

Balukoff pinned some of the blame on the tax shift engineered by then-Gov. Jim Risch and approved in 2006. The overhaul eliminated local property taxes collected for school district operations, used a sales tax increase to cover some of the difference and deprived the schools of a stable, reliable funding source.

“They came up with a solution that was an answer to something that wasn’t a problem,” Balukoff said.

Balukoff also said the state should collect sales taxes on online purchases, as another potential source of K-12 funding. But he said the state should first make the best use of the dollars now collected for K-12 — and aggressively enforce taxes already on the books, such as the Internet sales tax.

“I don’t know if we’re going to raise taxes or not,” Balukoff told students.

By some metrics, Idaho City is faring better than some of its rural counterparts.

Unlike more than 40 rural districts, which have adopted four-day schedules, the Basin district has preserved the traditional five-day week. While some school districts have struggled to pass supplemental property tax levies, Basin voters approved a two-year, $500,000 levy in May. The district has managed to maintain a pre-kindergarten program for 15 years, using money from the levy, and from a federal program that aids timber-rich counties in the rural Northwest.

But Superintendent John McFarlane worries about burnout. Staffers are wearing many hats: McFarlane also serves as high school principal, and he teaches a class in genetics. But now, many teachers are having to teach several different classes, juggling several different curricula with little or no prep time during the day.

“Every day, I look in the eyes of my staff, and it’s a real concern.”

More reading: Get a sense of how Balukoff and Otter differ on school funding, and on the direction of Idaho education.

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