Will Nampans trust schools with new levy?

Officials say they will work hard to bring the public into the discussion.

broberts@idahostatesman.comDecember 12, 2013 

  • HOW ABOUT A FIVE-YEAR LEVY?

    Increasing reliance statewide on supplemental levies approved by taxpayers to finance everyday school expenses is leading to a discussion about extending how long levies could be in effect.

    Supplemental levies are typically for one or two years. But some say that for districts whose budgets have relied on supplementals as the Legislature cut education funding, that’s too short a time for long-range planning.

    The Idaho School Boards Association has supported extending levy terms. Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, says four to five years isn’t out of line.

    “I think it is worth a serious look,” Burgoyne said.

    The Legislature — and the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, of which Burgoyne is a member — would have to approve such an idea.

    There is no legislation in the works now. But Brian McGourty, a Nampa School District trustee, said he sees value in the stability a longer levy could bring: “Absolutely.”

  • Getting taxpayer help in Meridian

    A $14 million supplemental levy passed by Meridian School District voters two years ago restored nine lost school days and paid for 45 teachers.

    It runs out in 2014.

    On top of that, the district has all but drained its reserve funds this year and faces a possible $6 million shortfall in 2014-2015.

    There are lots of moving parts in Meridian’s school financing. It doesn’t yet know how much money it will get from the Legislature for 2014-2015. Meridian will try to save some money this year to help ease the reserve fund shortage, but that amount is uncertain.

    District officials doubt that any increase coming from the 2014 Legislature would cover the district’s $14 million levy. If the district tries to pass a levy for that amount and loses, that would equal funding for about 18 days of school.

    Meridian officials are considering a 2014 supplemental levy but have not yet approached the school board with a proposal.

    The district may also come to voters in 2014 for a bond issue that could include building a new middle school near Roaring Springs water park to relieve overcrowding in other middle schools, particularly Lake Hazel Middle School. That school has about 1,425 students, but was built for 1,000.

Nampa School District, which just months ago battled financial bungling, a school closure and teachers leaving the district for jobs elsewhere, will ask taxpayers next year for more money to repair some of the damage.

The question is whether Nampa residents have regained enough confidence in the district and board to open their wallets.

“A supplemental levy, in some respects, is a vote of confidence or no confidence in the sitting board,” said Brian McGourty, a former board member who was re-elected last May. He was a critic of district operations that led to a $5 million deficit.

“I don’t like having to go back to the public this early,” McGourty said. “I don’t know whether there is another alternative.”

Nampa isn’t the only school district that may come to property taxpayers for money in 2014. Meridian School District is considering asking voters to extend or expand the $14 million-a-year levy that helped restore lost teaching days and positions.

All this is unfolding as a state task force on education reform has recommended restoring $82 million to school districts lost during the recession. Lawmakers are expected to consider that in January.

Nampa taxpayers are footing the bill for a $1.6 million levy that expires in 2014. The board is expected to decide in a few weeks whether to ask for about the same or more to help recover from furloughs, replace outdated computer equipment and more.

Over the past five years, Nampa voters have approved four of five supplemental levies, including one for $4.3 million in March to help Nampa schools get out of the financial mess.

None of the money generated from a new supplemental levy would go to fill the financial hole the district dug over several years, said Pete Koehler, district interim superintendent.

But filling that hole did bleed the district reserve fund so low that the district hopes for $700,000 from the next supplemental levy to replenish the fund that helps Nampa schools cover unexpected expenses.

“We have 15,000 children and we’ve been (living) paycheck to paycheck,” Koehler said.

Trustees voted Tuesday to approve a supplemental levy election but didn’t set an amount or a date for the election. Some board members are looking at March.

In the next few weeks, trustees will listen to the public. They are tentatively planning to meet with stakeholders, such as Nampa teachers and community groups, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the district office. The trustees also will hold a town hall meeting where the public can give its views; the date for that meeting wasn’t available Wednesday.

“We want them to be fully aware of what we are doing,” said Bob Otten, a trustee and former fourth-grade teacher in Nampa. “I think we can rebuild trust and let the people know we are not trying to pull the wool over their eyes.”

As the Nampa School District tumbled into financial trouble, parent Molly Lenty sat on committees that made some of the toughest decisions. She even supported closing Sunny Ridge Elementary, where one of her children went to school.

“I understood the impact,” she said.

But following those bleak days, Lenty said, she’s seen improvement in the district — much of it from Koehler, who replaced interim Superintendent Tom Michaelson.

“I think Pete Koehler has done a really great job of getting out into the community,” Lenty said.

Koehler has a priority list of spending for levy money totaling $2.8 million. That includes restoring about half of the 14 furlough days, including five instruction days; restoring 10 teaching positions of 46 that were cut through attrition; replenishing the reserve fund; and adding money for new computer equipment and Idaho Core Standards curriculum.

If the board backs his plan for a $2.8 million annual levy, the cost to the owner of a home with a taxable value of $100,000 would rise from $50 a year now to about $85.

Mike Fuller, a new board member, said he has no problems asking voters for the money, which he calculates would be pennies a day for two years.

Nampa’s current supplemental levies average out to $101 per child — the lowest of the Treasure Valley districts, Fuller said. The next lowest is $315 per child in Middleton, according to the district.

Lenty doesn’t think raising the levy is out of reach for the district.

“There is room for the community to consider supporting education at a more measurable rate (compared) to neighboring communities,” she said.

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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