Every spring, some Idaho school district has the misfortune to become the reigning exemplar for the inadequacy of state support toward public education.
That becomes apparent every time a school districts loses its supplemental levy election.
Five years ago, it was Troy that contemplated the loss of teachers, sports programs, music and electives when its levy failed, leaving the district to get by on what the state of Idaho provides.
When Kamiah’s supplemental was defeated last year, the district closed its middle school, deferred maintenance and maintained a bare-bones program.
Now Mountain View School District (Grangeville, Kooskia and Elk City) will face the dilemma.
Last week, $3.9 million — roughly 30 percent of its general education budget — disappeared because Mountain View voters rejected a supplemental levy by nearly a 2-to-1 margin.
It’s the first time the district has lost a supplemental levy since 2007. Last year, a $3 million supplemental cleared by 53 percent — or a margin of 131 votes.
Mountain View wasn’t alone. The state’s largest school system, West Ada, suffered the loss of its two-year, $28 million supplemental levy. Also going down to defeat were supplemental levies supporting Middleton and Kuna schools.
Stung by the COVID-19 pandemic, economic uncertainty and resentment over rising property tax bills, it’s a good bet voters are turning sour. Moreover, the election saw a big turnout from conservative voters, who tend to take a more skeptical view toward taxes.
Further complicating Mountain View’s political environment was school board member Casey Smith’s campaign against the levy.
Calling these dollars supplemental is a misnomer. There’s nothing extra about it. This money provides everything from additional teaching positions and paying experienced educators to stay put to updating textbooks and keeping the lights on — because the state of Idaho falls short.
Rather than invest more in Idaho’s schools, the state’s governors and legislators have chosen to cut income taxes on corporations and the state’s wealthier families. To compensate, voters have volunteered to pay more local property taxes. Last year, that total reached another record — $214 million.
Mountain View will patch and scratch its way along, largely by relying on the erratic Secure Rural Schools funding Congress periodically approves. But that means leaving in place a previous 5 percent cut in its teaching staff and tightening the belt elsewhere. What happens after the SRS dollars are spent is anyone’s guess.
The timing couldn’t be worse. With the state cutting back on its school spending, local dollars become more vital.
In the current budget that ends on June 30, state support for schools was reduced 1 percent, or $19 million.
In the budget for the new school year, Gov. Brad Little intends to shave another 5 percent, or $99 million. That’s going to erase the 2020 Legislature’s chief achievement — better pay for veteran teachers — as well as line-item technology programs, cost-of-living adjustments and leadership premiums.
Perhaps Little’s office can target the cuts into areas that federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds can backfill.
Or things could get worse. There’s no guarantee against further economic decline. Who’s to say whether school funding might be further reduced in the months ahead?
Even with the recent string of budget spikes for schools, Idaho had barely recovered from the deep cuts imposed during the Great Recession. Inflation and enrollment increases had absorbed much of the new dollars.
Costs continue to rise. More children continue to occupy classrooms. And there’s the matter of reopening schools while the coronavirus is still spreading with no cure in sight. That means everything from hand sanitizers to more custodians as well as personal protective equipment and adjustments in busing. When the Association of School Business Officials International scoped out the costs for an average-sized school district of almost 3,700 students occupying eight buildings with a staff of almost 330, it put the cost at nearly $1.8 million.
So the gap between Idaho’s haves — in other words, school districts that can pass supplemental levies — and its have-nots — those districts that are forced to rely exclusively on what the state is willing to provide — will expand further.
Mountain View now finds itself among the have-nots. — M.T.