Superintendent Sherri Ybarra responded to this letter. Click here to read it.
Dear Superintendent Sherri Ybarra:
I have held this letter for days wondering if it is the right thing to do. But tonight as I received notification of yet another teacher at Troy leaving I am saddened and disheartened and feel it is the time to send you my letter. I am writing to make sure you are aware of what my school district is going through and with this knowledge I hope you will work to make changes in how schools are funded.
On June 13, 2015, I received a phone call saying that I was no longer going to be employed because our school’s levy had failed, again. Troy, a district of 293 students, has reduced and/or eliminated eight full-time teachers, two other professionals and 4.5 staff positions. Agriculture education, business and marketing technology education, music, elementary PE, school counselors, student council, athletics, art, and more – all gone. If our levy passes Aug. 25 there may be a chance to bring some of it back but Troy has already lost and will continue to lose valuable teachers, support staff and students who will transfer to other schools, and secure jobs over the summer.
I have learned a lot about school funding through this process, and I have to hope that something positive will come from our levy’s failure.
I have learned that school levies are not a “general and uniform” (Idaho Constitution Article IX) means of funding our schools. Washington State’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the 2012 McCleary Case that declared “…the State’s funding system – and specifically its over-reliance on local levies – was unconstitutional.” A chart by Idaho Education News shows the explosive growth of Idaho’s school levies over the past decade, a 138 percent increase from 2006-2007. Troy residents want to support education but cannot do it anymore. While our levies have skyrocketed, the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy report entitled A More Responsible Tax Policy for Idaho explains that we are giving away $2.4 billion of revenue in tax expenditures (or tax breaks) yet the public education budget for Idaho in 2015 is $1.4 billion. That means we give away $1 billion more in tax breaks than we invest in our K-12 budget. In addition, the report states there is little if no oversight for these tax breaks and we don’t even know if they are working. “Over the last 15 years, the state has reversed course, steadily cutting revenues $500 million annually”. It is hard for me to fathom how the State is trying to micromanage teacher salaries yet there is no system in place to evaluate the benefit of the 136 tax breaks that are $1 billion more than our entire K-12 budget.
How can Idaho leave funding for something as important as the education of our State’s youth to temporary levies that are dependent “wholly on the whim of the electorate and rely on the assessed valuation of real property at the local level” (McCleary Case p. 6)?
The Idaho Legislature has an obligation to review the basic education program as the needs of students and the demands of society evolve and ample funding for education must be accomplished by means of dependable and regular tax sources (McCleary Case p. 3).
Constitution of the State of Idaho Article IX Education and School Lands
SECTION 1. LEGISLATURE TO ESTABLISH SYSTEM OF FREE SCHOOLS. The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it shall be the duty of the legislature of Idaho, to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.
The word “thorough”, referenced in the McCleary Case and Idaho’s constitution above, means that educational programs and funding must be complete with regard to every detail; not superficial or partial.
Thorough, by today’s standards, means inclusion of everything Troy has been forced to cut. Living with what the State provides for education isn’t a thorough education. Our levy provides for competitive salaries above the State levels, Professional Technical Education (PTE) programs that are in dire need, athletics, leadership development activities and the arts. These programs are essential to the well-being of our students, and Idaho, for support and development of business, agriculture, medicine, technology and the family unit. I wish every school could have a Family and Consumer Science program to teach child rearing, household money management, cooking, relationship development, stress management, drug and alcohol awareness and personal ethics.
In 2012, Idaho spent an average of $20,257 annually per prisoner that is incarcerated. The money spent on an Idaho school child in comparison was $6,824. Imagine if these funds were invested in schools, teachers and students; maybe some of our societal problems could be reversed.
In addition, the value of athletic programs, currently funded by local levies, is undeniable by today’s standards. Have you seen the Kevin Costner movie McFarland? It is a great example of the value of athletic programs to society. I quote JFK, “Mental and physical health and vigor go hand in hand.” My husband and I can attest to the value of PTE and athletic programs as he was, until our levy failed, our school’s varsity football coach (2010 State Champs) and I was our school’s Business Professionals of America advisor and have attended state and national competitions and leadership development conferences with students every year since 2009. The kids who participate in school activities are our future leaders. We must thoroughly fund education to give kids the “…knowledge and skills needed to compete in today’s economy and meaningfully participate in this state’s democracy” (McCleary Act, p. 2).
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan explains that American students are not just competing with other regional or state schools, they are competing with students from around the world. And Nelson Mandela eloquently states that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” These essential educational programs should be available to EVERY student in Idaho so that they can compete in and contribute to today’s society!
The Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy report entitled Idaho Public School Funding 1980-2013 documents exactly how we got ourselves into this mess beginning with the removal of the equalized levy component and the reduction of taxes for individuals in Idaho’s top tax bracket and corporations in 2006.
And then, continuing with unprecedented funding cuts. I have been employed as a teacher at Troy since 2007 (the year after equalized levies were eliminated) and every year we have had to make cuts and at the same time increase our levy. Jana Jones stated that “Supplemental levies are no longer used for their original purpose: to fund new programs and innovations. Now, they are just used to keep districts afloat” (Idaho Education News, 2014). Troy’s supplemental levy is over one third of it’s operating budget and nearby Moscow is approximately 48 percent (Principal Kendra McMillan, Lena Whitmore Elementary School). When schools throughout Idaho are relying on supplemental levies at these levels it is catastrophic when they do not pass. Troy is the tip of the iceberg that you can see above water. Below water are many districts operating with dangerously low and unreliable funds.
The way I see it, state funding at Troy is short by $1.3 million dollars — the amount of our first supplemental levy that we felt would thoroughly fund education at Troy. Idaho school administrators and teachers know what is needed to provide a thorough education to our students and have gone to their local communities over and over for this support and are relying on unsustainable, unreliable and unequal levies.
The Task Force on Improving Education recommended some improvements this year but they are not near enough. I know you didn’t get us to this point, but since you hold the office of State Superintendent of Public Instruction, I challenge you to please initiate and make changes to reform and improve school funding beginning with the next legislative session.
I would like to know:
- How will you EQUALIZE school funding so that every student has the same general and uniform opportunities for an education?
- How will you STABILIZE funding for education so that we have a system of free common schools so a community such as Troy doesn’t have to face this uncertainty again?
- How will you provide THOROUGH funding for essential PTE, athletics and arts programs that meet the needs and demands of society but are currently being paid for with local levy dollars?
- What mechanism(s) will you establish to ensure Idaho keeps up with rising costs of utilities, food programs, insurance, transportation and special education needs that are currently supported with levy dollars?
Fixing these fundamental violations of our constitution is paramount. The above questions must be answered and change must occur because we cannot continue down this road; there is too much at stake and we should not have to put our kids and community through this pandemonium every year. Our kids in Troy have a constitutional right to a “general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools” (Idaho Constitution Article IX) and deserve it every bit as much as the kids in districts with greater land values, wouldn’t you agree?
Will Idaho leaders take it upon themselves to ensure school funding that meets our constitutional obligation and lives up to today’s standards? Let’s work together to make Idaho education a priority for ALL students. Please let me know what I can do to help.