Kuna schools: Round 2 in levy fight

Teachers could be cut and programs hurt, but opponents say the district should manage its money better

broberts@idahostatesman.comApril 27, 2014 

  • Kuna tops tax list

    The Kuna School District leads the Treasure Valley in the tax rate that property owners are assessed for schools. Figures below are for all property taxes paid to schools, including bonds for construction and supplemental levies for operational costs. Dollar amounts are what taxpayers would pay for $100,000 of taxable property value.

    District, tax

    Kuna, $741

    Vallivue, $572

    Boise, $571

    Middleton, $525

    Caldwell, $492

    Meridian, $464

    Nampa, $369

    Figures for 2013-2014 Source: State Department of Education Rounded to the nearest dollar

  • Voting early

    You don't need to wait until May 20 to cast your ballot in the Kuna School District levy election.

    The district straddles Ada and Canyon counties. You can vote early in both counties through May 16.

    • Ada County early voting takes place from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, May 10, at the Ada County Elections Office, 400 N. Benjamin Lane in Boise.

    • Canyon County early voting takes place from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays at the Canyon County Elections Office, 1102 E. Chicago St. in Caldwell.

  • BILL ROBERTS

    Bill has covered education in Idaho and the Treasure Valley for several years. He has been concentrating coverage for the past year on Idaho Core Standards and its testing.

Lee Leslie, Kuna High School's football coach, sees a few students every year who want to join the team but can't afford the roughly $150 for equipment such as cleats and socks. He digs around to try to find some shoes, some the football program might have, to try to help.

"I've probably taken care of two dozen," Leslie said.

But the cost of being a Kuna Kaveman could double if voters don't agree to renew a two-year, $3.19 million-a-year levy on May 20.

Without the money, school officials say, the districts might impose a $150 pay-to-play fee for things that go beyond straight academics, such as Future Farmers of America, music and sports.

"(That) makes it more difficult for kids to participate," said Wendy Johnson, the Kuna School District superintendent.

Kuna voters have already spoken on the district's levy once, rejecting it March 11 by fewer than 100 votes out of 2,100 cast. The school board decided to try again and rushed a vote onto the next available ballot in hopes of keeping the levy from expiring in June.

Supporters and opponents are taking a higher profile than they did for the March vote.

District officials worry that the loss of 11 percent of the district's $24 million annual budget could result in a stream of teachers leaving.

Without the $6.38 million, Kuna could cut 30 teaching positions from a staff of 270 for the district's 5,100 students, Johnson said. That could save more than $1 million a year.

Pay-to-play would get the district slightly more than $200,000 to help cover program costs.

But the loss of teachers skilled in certain areas and dwindling student attendance in some programs could hurt the programs or force their cancellation, Johnson said.

Other potential effects include shortening the school calendar by up to six days and increasing class sizes.

PROPERTY TAXES HIT HOUSING

The Kuna levy isn't cheap. When voters approved the supplemental levy in 2012, it carried a price tag of $326 per $100,000 of taxable value on property. The district's property tax levy is the highest in the Treasure Valley.

Because the city is a bedroom community for Meridian and Boise, it has no significant commercial base to share the tax burden. Eighty percent of the district's property tax revenue comes from homes.

The district could outsource its janitorial services, as Nampa schools did when encountering financial problems in 2012-2013, and save an estimated $133,000, said Steve Ackerman, a levy opponent.

He recommended that the district consider contracting out its bus service, as Boise and Nampa have done and as Meridian is considering.

Ackerman, an adjunct professor in economics at the College of Idaho, said Kuna officials also aren't taking into account nearly $600,000 they will receive from the state this year as part of the Legislature's agreement to begin restoring money lost to Idaho schools when the Great Recession forced cutbacks.

Johnson, however, said that money will replace a plant facilities levy that is expiring.

Ackerman said he thinks that money should go to classrooms, or possibly toward pay raises for teachers.

Opponents also say the district hasn't spelled out exactly how it will use the money if the levy is renewed. "We don't have any specifics," Ackerman said at a Kuna Chamber of Commerce meeting April 17.

Last week the district released a priority list that said 76 percent of levy revenue would go toward maintaining 30 teacher positions and the school calendar.

Dispersing that information is helpful, Ackerman said, but it needs to be more specific, especially about how much money would go to supplies and materials, and to help with costs associated with activities and athletics.

GOING TO PAY-TO-PLAY

Levy opponents include Michael Law, a Kuna School Board trustee facing a possible recall over his levy opposition. He says pay-to-play is fair. Taxpayers shouldn't pick up the additional costs of the programs, he said. And tax money should go to academics, not sports, he said.

Zeb Bellon, Kuna High's band teacher, agrees. In his band program, students pay $200 to participate. That doesn't count other expenses, including trips to competition or parades such as at Disneyland, where the Kuna Gold Marching Band has participated.

Bellon took over the band program two years ago with 50 students. He has increased that to 110, and he projects 140 by next year.

Band parents help students who don't have the money, said Teri Woods, who has three students in the district's music programs. Pay-to-play frees district dollars for other things, she said. "That money is better spent on curriculum," said Woods, who supports the levy.

Pay-to-play doesn't make economic sense to Zeke Corder, 64, who has no children in the district but supports the levy. He says parents might get a better deal on their property taxes but could end up paying more for pay-to-play.

TEACHER TURNOVER

The loss of instructors is a key concern among parents who support the bond.

When the Nampa district faced financial problems for miscalculating its revenue and creating a $5 million deficit, nearly a quarter of its teachers left the district as a two-week furlough was put in place and instructors worried about job security.

Parents worry the same could happen in Kuna if the levy fails. Before the March 11 vote, Leslie accepted what he calls a "dream job" next year as head coach at Kahuku High School in Honolulu. He didn't fear for his job if the levy failed, but he thought others would.

Sharon Fisher, who has a 14-year-old daughter in Kuna schools, said concern about departing teachers has made her look at other schools, including Bishop Kelly High and Capital High in Boise, and Renaissance High in Meridian.

"We are hoping to keep the teachers," Fisher said. But if the levy is defeated and teachers start leaving, she is ready "to pull the trigger" and move her daughter out of the district.

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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