School levy and bond elections are out of control

It’s time for Idaho lawmakers to reform the way school districts demand money from taxpayers. The number of school levy and school bond elections are out of control, and school districts have learned that the mechanics of an election are more important than public support. Furthermore, the timing of the requests virtually guarantees there’s no real connection between what taxpayers are being asked to pony up and what lawmakers budget for public schools.

Take for example the Middleton School District in Canyon County, where fewer than 10 percent of registered voters on Tuesday turned out to approve a $2.6 million supplemental levy. Districts, of course, thrive on these low-turnout affairs.

Although the school district’s request for money is immediate, the fact is not a single dollar will be drawn for the levy until December 2016. Keep in mind that the Legislature will meet in January, and if it follows the course of the last legislative session (where spending for K-12 education increased by 7.4 percent), lawmakers will likely continue shoveling piles of money into public schools. Middleton school officials can’t plausibly know what “supplemental” money it needs from taxpayers until at least after the 2016 legislative session.

School districts are allowed to put funding questions to voters four times: March, May, August and November. Middleton school finance director Darren Uranga told me, “We would have normally run this election in March 2016. However, we were planning to run a school bond election in March 2016 for a new elementary school, so we decided to run this supplemental in August and in the case it failed we wanted to then be able to run it again in November.”

Uranga dismissed the idea of putting the levy on the May 2016 ballot (he claimed that’s too close to budget-setting season), the August 2016 ballot (too late after budget-setting) or November 2016 (past the county tax certification deadline).

I asked Uranga why the district didn’t put the supplemental levy on the same ballot as the bond election slated for next March. He didn’t respond to my question, but he didn’t have to: It’s obvious that multiple elections help hide how much they’re really asking for. The district got its supplemental levy. Now it can make its next request, and hopefully Middleton voters by then will have forgotten about the last election.

Meanwhile in Latah County, Troy School District voters were asked three times to approve a supplemental levy; in March the question was $1.3 million, to which voters said no. In May, the district asked for $1.2 million. When that, too, failed, the district put $995,000 on the August ballot, which voters supported. Or maybe they just wanted a break from all the funding requests.

In Wendell, in Gooding County, voters have been asked four times to approve the same school bond. The proposal didn’t get the two-thirds vote needed, so you can bet voters will be asked again in March.

Lawmakers should make two policy changes here: The first is to require school districts to use supplemental levies as truly supplemental. Setting and holding an election for funds that won’t come due for a year and a half is an abuse of the process and an abuse of taxpayers.

Second, school districts should get one shot per year to make their case to voters. Holding multiple elections so that voters can’t fully appreciate the aggregate impact of their tax increases is unfair. Requiring voters to trek to the polls three or four times a year tries the taxpayers’ patience. It’s intended to wear them down.

Right now, Idaho’s school levy and bond elections depend too much on cleverness, and not enough on public support. That’s no way to run either a school district or an election system.

Wayne Hoffman is executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation.