Idaho’s supplemental levy bill drops slightly

Idaho school districts are collecting more than $180 million in voter-approved supplemental levies in 2014-15.

This represents almost a 4 percent decrease from 2013-14, when districts collected more than $188 million in supplemental levies. But the dropoff can be explained by reduced levies in three of the state’s largest districts. Across the state, levy elections are more commonplace than ever.

The supplemental levy trend is a talking point in the perennial debate over Idaho school funding — a debate that will resume in one week, when the 2015 legislative session convenes and newly re-elected Gov. Butch Otter presents his ninth state budget request. During the Great Recession, large and small school districts have used the supplemental levies to replace funding cut from state K-12 budgets.

According to the current numbers, compiled by the State Department of Education, districts are continuing to rely on supplemental levies, even as state K-12 spending increases.

Ninety-three of Idaho’s 115 school districts have supplemental levies on the books in 2014-15, up from 91 districts in 2013-14. A decade ago, only 54 districts had supplemental levies on the books. However, this number increased dramatically during the recession, as the Legislature imposed unprecedented cuts in K-12 spending.

The 2014-15 levy list includes Idaho’s largest district, West Ada; in March, voters renewed a two-year, $28 million levy. The list also includes Eastern Idaho’s Arbon Elementary district, with an enrollment of 19 and a $50,000-a-year levy. New to the list is the Madison School District; the Rexburg-based district weathered the recession without a supplemental levy, but went to voters in August for an additional $1.99 million over two years.

Still, the statewide supplemental levy bottom line decreased, for the first time since 1996-97. This is the result of decreases in three districts:

  • Boise reduced one of its levies by $5.5 million — after the 2014 Legislature boosted the state’s K-12 budget by 5.1 percent. In March 2012, voters gave the Boise district the go-ahead to levy an additional $14 million a year for five years. The district has never taken this amount, and is collecting $6.5 million from this levy in 2014-15.
  • Nampa’s supplemental levy is down by slightly more than $2.5 million, as the state’s third largest district is finally back in the black after a prolonged budget crisis. Nampa used a series of three supplemental levies to erase a $5.3 million shortfall.
  • Coeur d’Alene shaved more than $1.8 million from its levy.

During Otter’s eight years in office, Idahoans have approved more than $1 billion in property taxes to backfill school district budgets. In 2006-07, Otter’s first year in office, the state’s supplemental property tax bill totaled $79.1 million.

To some extent, future supplemental levy trends will hinge on spending decisions made at the Statehouse in the weeks ahead.

When legislators convene next week, they will need to decide whether they want to continue to restore operational funding for school districts. Like supplemental levies, operational funding can be used to cover a variety of needs — such as staffing and salaries, employee benefits and transportation and utilities. The 2014 Legislature restored $35 million in operational funding — a factor in Boise’s decision to shave its supplemental levy. However, it will take another $78 million to bring the budget back to pre-recession levels.

In his final budget blueprint, outgoing state superintendent Tom Luna recommended only a $10 million increase in operational funding for 2015-16. Otter will present his budget to lawmakers on Jan. 12. New state superintendent Sherri Ybarra, sworn into office Monday, will present her budget proposal later in the month.

The top 10

The largest supplemental school levies in Idaho for 2014-15:

  1. Boise: $17,208,000
  2. West Ada: $14,000,000
  3. Lewiston: $12,806,337
  4. Coeur d’Alene: $12,416,762
  5. Moscow: $9,397,713
  6. Pocatello: $8,492,303
  7. Lake Pend Oreille: $7,883,742
  8. Idaho Falls: $6,800,000
  9. Lakeland: $4,795,000
  10. Vallivue: $4,500,000; Twin Falls: $4,500,000 (tie)
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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