Two districts collect emergency levies — despite enrollment decreases

Fourteen school districts across Idaho will collect nearly $8.7 million in emergency tax levies this year — designed to offset the demands of growth.

But two of these 14 districts actually lost enrollment in 2015-16, based on fall numbers compiled by the State Department of Education. Eastern Idaho’s Bonneville School District dropped by 163 students, and no district in the state netted a larger enrollment loss. Yet Bonneville will collect more than $605,000 in emergency levies this year.

This is allowed under state law, — and ultimately, it comes down to how and when students are counted. Districts file paperwork requesting the levy and report increases in daily attendance, with little oversight and no questions asked.

Here’s how it happens:

  • Idaho’s school funding formula is based not on enrollment, but on the average number of students who attend school on a given day. If this “average daily attendance” number increases from the start of one year to the next, state law allows school boards to collect an emergency property tax levy.
  • Among the menu of levies and bond issues available to school districts, emergency levies are an oddity. They don’t require voter approval; this discretion rests solely with school boards. Emergency levies are in effect for only one year — although a district can collect such a levy year after year, as long as it continues to grow.
  • When it comes to calculating growth — and quantifying the need for an emergency levy — the districts are essentially on the honor system. Each year, the districts file a certificate with county commissioners, listing every bond and levy the districts are entitled to collect. Districts enter in the amount for the emergency levy, but they don’t have to justify or explain this line item.

The emergency levy is designed to help districts react quickly to growth. Districts don’t know exactly how many students to expect until they open their doors in the fall. The idea behind the emergency levy is to allow growing districts to start collecting additional taxes as early in the school year as possible.

However, student numbers are always fluid.

The Nampa School District calculated its average daily attendance at 13,630 for the start of the 2015-16 school year. That’s up 107 students from a year ago. Based on those calculations, the district determined it was eligible for a $478,367 emergency levy.

“We’ve focused on increasing attendance,” district spokeswoman Allison Westfall said. “Preliminary data shows (attendance) remained higher throughout the fall.”

Based on preliminary fall numbers collected by the state, Nampa’ enrollment dropped by 22 students, coming in at 14,870 this year. The 2015-16 number is a snapshot, and the decrease wasn’t unexpected, Westfall said. Enrollment in kindergarten and early elementary grades are down, offsetting increases in the high schools.

Bonneville’s situation is more complicated.

The Eastern Idaho district says its brick-and-mortar student population continues to grow. And in September, Bonneville calculated its average daily attendance at 11,742, up 138 from a year ago.

But enrollment numbers have dropped in the past year. In November 2014, Bonneville signed an agreement with a Utah contractor to provide online curriculum to home-schooled students. Bonneville teachers worked with the students, and the district added the home-schoolers to its enrollment numbers. But the district decided not to continue the contract, and that’s reflected in the enrollment decrease, said April Burton, Bonneville’s business manager.

The attendance numbers — the nuts and bolts behind the emergency levy — are all calculated in-house, at the district level. It’s not clear when, or if, anyone doublechecks the math.

Districts can use a State Department of Education worksheet to calculate the emergency levy amount, but they aren’t required to provide this document to county commissioners. Nampa and Bonneville both provided their worksheets to Idaho Education News.

The State Department of Education also takes a hands-off approach.

“Districts aren’t obligated to correspond with the SDE nor are they obligated to seek approval from the SDE,” said Jeff Church, a spokesman for state superintendent Sherri Ybarra.

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