Tax hikes hit property owners — and growing school districts

The latest blow to our family budget in these inflationary times showed up in our mailbox Monday.

Like Idahoans everywhere, the taxable amount of our house went up, a lot. The damage: a net taxable increase of over $100,000, in one year. 

Add it to almost everything else, from gas to hamburgers.

Our soaring assessment isn’t all bad. It means our home’s value is up, which means more equity. But that’s only money we would see if we took out a home equity loan or sold the place.

We need a place to live, and the bathroom’s already been updated. 

On the other hand, like Idahoans everywhere, a tax hike tied to a soaring assessment shows up in our house payments every month. We’re planning to fork over hundreds more to the county monthly once the change kicks in.

But it’s not just families that are impacted when assessments soar. The changes also affect Idaho’s school districts, which use voter-approved levies and bond issues to pad their budgets, build and improve facilities. These measures show up on local ballots in districts across Idaho every year, and, if passed, are funded through property taxes from home and business owners like you and me. (School districts aren’t the only entities that impact your property taxes. My recent statement included a local cemetery, rural library and other county-based taxing districts that require local funds.)

So assessment hikes can be bad for growing districts asking for more local funds, since property owners like you and me are dealing with soaring taxes at the moment. We may only be able to fork over so much.

And inflation aside, passing measures, especially bond issues, can already be tricky for local leaders. All three bond issues on ballots statewide tanked during last month’s primary election, including a $79 million request for a new high school in Mountain Home.

But assessment hikes can also be good for districts, as I’ve learned over the years.

As a high school English teacher in East Idaho in 2014, I pitched what I thought was the perfect plan to a more experienced teacher also grappling with hot late-summer days spent teaching 30-plus students upstairs in an older, unconditioned wing of the school.

The plan: just ask voters to fund construction of a new school, a roomier one, like that new $65 million facility in neighboring district, only better, with central air conditioning and that new school smell.

His answer, which I didn’t really understand at the time: Our community could never afford a new high school like the one I described.

I learned years later as a reporter covering school finances for Idaho Education News how right he was. A State Department of Education tally of tax dollars generated in school districts across the state clarified why: my school district was, at the time, third from the bottom on a market value comparison of Idaho’s 115 school districts.

A $65 million bond issue could have sparked the kind of uproar taxpayers like me are railing about now. And that’s if the district could have even put a measure that size on the ballot, since Idaho law caps bond issues at 5% of a district’s entire market value.

Still with me? Good, because here’s how rising property assessments can be a good thing for districts like mine: when assessments go up, so does a district’s market value and its capacity to absorb a bigger funding measure, at less of an impact to local taxpayers.

In short, a bigger market value can absorb bigger levies and bonds. Population growth and rising assessments help districts get there.

And bigger bonds mean bigger and flashier schools. That’s why some districts can afford that state-of-the-art facility that others, like many in the state’s more rural pockets, can only dream of.

Still, convincing voters strapped with tax hikes to fund any sort of facilities project is no walk in the playground, one school facilities expert tells me.

Longtime Idaho school superintendent Rich Bauscher is now retired, sort of. Long hailed as a foremost expert on passing bonds, superintendents still go to him for advice.

He acknowledged the positive impacts assessment hikes can have on a district’s market value, but said blowback from patrons has some school leaders already on their toes.

Superintendents in two districts gearing up to float measures this year have already reached out to Bauscher for advice on navigating community sticker shock over assessment hikes.

Bauscher’s advice: consider making some adjustments.

“I ask them, ‘Can you drop a project or two from your plans?'” he said.

Devin Bodkin

About Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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