Meridian faces two big elections in 2014

Meridian Middle School first day
Students arrive for the first day of classes in Meridian Middle School in August. The district’s middle schools are exceeding building capacity by 932 students, prompting talk of a bond issue election in 2014.

Idaho’s largest school district faces a busy election year in 2014.

And an important one as well.

The Meridian School District will seek another supplemental levy, most likely in March, and a building bond issue, probably in August.

The dates aren’t official — and no dollar figures are set either. But Meridian school officials are hoping to cash in on an economic rebound and use some financial restructuring to lessen the impact on taxpayers.

Here’s a closer early look at both proposals.

The supplemental levy

Meridian’s two-year, $28 million levy — passed in March 2012 — expires this year. The district won’t necessarily look for more money in 2014, spokesman Eric Exline said Wednesday, but probably won’t ask for anything less than $14 million a year.

The stakes are straightforward — a “laser message,” as assistant superintendent Bruce Gestrin describes it. Without a new $14 million levy, the district would have to cut 18 days from the school calendar. (And this is in a district that has restored only seven of the 14 days cut during the depths of the Great Recession.)

Another key part of Meridian’s message: The district believes it can propose a levy and still reduce its overall tax rate. That’s because the district’s property value is finally rebounding. The overall property value, which peaked at $15 billion, tumbled to $10 billion in 2011-12. Since then, values have increased by $1.2 billion, Exline said, and this broadens the tax base.

The earliest Meridian — or any district — can schedule a levy election is March 11, one of four school election dates allowed under state law. That means the clock is ticking. School districts must submit ballot language by Jan. 17.

The tight timetable also means districts are operating in a vacuum. The Legislature will be only two weeks into its 2014 session, so the 2014-15 K-12 budget won’t be set. Districts won’t know how much, or how little, the state will provide to replace $82.5 million in “operational funding” that was slashed during the Recession. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna has recommended restoring $16.5 million in operational funds, and Meridian would stand to receive about $2 million of this money, Exline said.

Still, there are advantages to running a levy in March. If a March levy passes, a district can easily factor the money into a new budget year, which begins July 1. If a March levy fails to receive the simple majority needed to pass, a district can come back with a new proposal in May.

But Meridian would like to avoid a May election — and avoid having to vie for attention in the midst of a primary. “We’ll be an afterthought compared to the primary in the governor’s race,” Exline said.

The bond issue

The last time Meridian ran a bond issue, voters said yes to $139 million in building projects. That was 2005 — the tail end of Meridian’s long real estate boom, which saw enrollment zoom to the 30,000 mark.

Enrollment growth slowed during the recession, but it never stopped. And in September, enrollment reached 36,269.

At the top of the district’s wish list is middle school space: Middle school enrollment is 8,482, and current building capacity is 7,550. In essence, this means the district is short an entire middle school, Exline said.

Meridian hopes to use a bit of refinancing to again lower the overall property tax rate.

The district is working on a $32 million remodeling project at Meridian High School, a project that will probably take another five years to finish, Gestrin said. Currently, Meridian is using a $20 million-a-year plant facilities levy to cover this remodeling job. But if the district uses bonds for long-term financing of the remodel, it could also be able to reduce its plant facilities levy by $5 million a year.

This fall, Meridian polled nearly 2,800 residents about a possible bond issue. When residents were told about the district’s enrollment numbers, and the space shortage at the middle school level, 76 percent of respondents supported a middle school project. This would be well above the two-thirds majority needed to pass a bond issue.

Not surprisingly, respondents were also more likely to support a bond issue if their overall property tax rates dropped or remained static.

The survey also yielded one other interesting finding — one that shows the kind of voter education effort that awaits Meridian school leaders. More than half of the respondents have never voted in a Meridian school bond election; they are newcomers who weren’t in the district during the real estate boom, when Meridian ran a building bond every two years.

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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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