You might not guess it, if you happen to pass through, but tiny Rockland, population 318, is a place of distinction. The town, south of American Falls in eastern Idaho, has no grocery store. Its gas station is just a couple of unmanned pumps where you pay by credit card. But what this town does have is a school, and local people stand behind it.
When public schools are short on money, they have a last resort. They can go to voters and ask them to pay extra. As state funding for Idaho schools has dropped, many districts have done just that. But theres a hitch. Levies can lead to unequal tax burdens and disparate funding levels for students.
Jon May was the first person to cast a ballot at Rockland City Hall on primary day May 15, and the local school levy was up for a vote. I asked May whether he supported it. Yes, I did, he said. He always does.
In Rockland, May is in good company. While some districts have trouble getting voters to support school levies, in this town, the levy is a shoe-in. It never fails, even though people in this district pay the highest rate in the state.
Theres little that Rockland School Superintendent Jim Woodworth likes more than showing off the school the classrooms, the new gym, the playground. He gestures proudly. The grass and everything out here we put in ourselves, he says.
The school isnt fancy, but local people have had a hand in all of it. Local farmers and ranchers excavated the site. They brought their trucks and tractors, and we spent one whole summer moving dirt and hauling gravel, Woodworth says. We saved close to $250,000 just by doing the excavation for the building ourselves.
That was years ago. Recently, Rockland residents got together to paint the new gym. Woodworth has lined up volunteers to repair a tennis court this summer. All told, he estimates the school has saved half a million dollars.
It needs every penny. This district has seen a 20 percent decline in state funding in the last three years, according to figures from the state Department of Education.
Its a reality Woodworth absorbs with the calmness youd expect of a small-town superintendent who wears Wranglers to work and ranches on the side. You know, sometimes you get a little upset, because you think, Well, you know, you guys could be doing more for us. You could be helping us out a little more. And yet, when its handed down to us, we just take it and go with it, he says. I mean, thats all we can do.
And when whats handed down is less money, the school has to ask taxpayers for more.
LITTLE HIGH-VALUE PROPERTY
Sharee Petersen is in the middle of a busy day, loading cows and calves into a truck on a ranch outside of town. She points to the line of them, plodding past. The calves were born January, February, March. We start calving the end of January, she says. Then she moves off quickly, whistling and calling, herding them toward the open gates.
If theres anyone who understands the schools tight budget and the pressure it puts on local people, its Petersen. She grew up in Rockland and ranches with her father and brother. She also heads the local school foundation. Her kids are three of the 167 who attend Rockland School, K-12.
Later, Petersen tells me that the tough thing about the school levy is that it falls to farm and ranch families like hers to pay the largest share. We dont have a lot of booming businesses out here. We have a lot of grazing land. So we have to rely on the farmers, and thats a bad deal!
According to the county assessors office, the largest farms and ranches in this district pay about $5,000 each toward the school levy each year.
Heres the hard situation for Rockland: It has some of the lowest property values in the state.
Statewide data show that in 2010, taxpayers in the Rockland district paid a levy that amounts to $696.50 per $100,000 of property value.
To raise the extra $210,000 its school needs to get by, Rockland taxpayers agree to a levy rate that is 17 times the rate paid in the Kootenai Joint district, one of the states wealthiest, in Harrison on Lake Coeur dAlene.
Economist Mike Ferguson of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy says that might violate the state constitution.
Property taxes are supposed to be levied uniformly, he says. And by having the districts with levies all across the board, some at zero, some at relatively high rates, thats not uniform property taxation.
Ferguson says unequal taxation is only part of the problem. The other issue is that education funding can vary dramatically, depending on a districts property values. Thats potentially bad for students.
Depending on which district a student lives in, they may get zip from a supplemental levy, or they may get a lot, Ferguson observes. That has a direct bearing on the quality of the education that they will receive.
THE HEART OF THE COMMUNITY
At the end of the school day, music teacher William Lower leads the high school band in one of its last practices. The students are taking an exuberant but slightly shaky run through Wade in the Water.
Stop! Lower calls out. Measure 47, did any of my flutes play an E flat? he asks. From the front row, a flutist acknowledges that they all might have messed up. Yeah, it sounded like all of you! Lower says cheerfully, picking the piece up where they left off.
People in Rockland are proud of their school, and rightfully so. Theyve volunteered and paid extra to support it.
But Lower says that strategy has its limits. If you keep volunteering to do things, people will begin to expect you to simply volunteer all the time, he says.
He sees that happening already. Whats happening with the state is we had people who agreed to volunteer, and now the state is saying, Well, now you have to volunteer. And if you dont volunteer, then your kids are going to suffer.
In spite of this communitys dedication, Rockland School has cut back. It has gone to a four-day school week. Textbooks arent updated as often as they used to be. Teachers havent had raises in years.
Local people say theyll weather the storm, just like they always do. If the school goes under, the town goes under, they say. And theyre determined to keep both afloat.
Molly Messick: email@example.com