Education

Treasure Valley schools might put hands out to taxpayers — again

The West Ada and Nampa school boards expect to go to voters as early as November for more property tax money to run their schools.

Trustees say the schools have never recovered all the dollars they lost when legislators slashed public education funding during and after the Great Recession.

Two years ago, property owners in both districts — the largest and third-largest in Idaho — approved supplemental levies to offset some of the state cuts and help pay for day-to-day operations. Their votes added a combined $34 million to the districts for 2014-15 and 2015-16. The voters restored 23 days of school and 70 teacher positions across the two districts.

But the financial shortfall isn’t over. Nor is the pressure for schools to improve.

Both districts consider it crucial to continue, or possibly increase, the flow of supplemental levy money. “This is probably the biggest thing facing us right now,” said Mike Vuittonet, in his fifth term as a trustee on the West Ada board.

The Nampa School District might ask voters to approve a wide-ranging levy that would not only maintain the current levy’s gains but pay for up-to-date curricula and technology, and cover some activity and athletic costs.

Yet some trustees say they sense that the public is growing weary of constantly shelling out for supplemental levies.

“I think the public is fatigued of essentially funding common, ordinary expenses by emergency or extraordinary mechanisms,” West Ada trustee Julie Madsen said at a board meeting in August.

The districts are still considering how much to ask for. Their boards have been meeting this week to consider money and strategies. And they are feeling the pressure of the calendar: They must have supplemental ballot language to county election offices by mid-September for voters to decide on supplemental levies on the Nov. 3 ballot.

That ballot is widely regarded as the most favorable time in the year-round election cycle to put the tax question to voters.

Idaho has four election days, in November, March, May and August. March was once thought of as a good time for bond and levy elections for districts, because they didn’t face a lot of competing issues. But next March’s election day will feature the Idaho Republican presidential primary. Some school officials fear it will be hard for schools to get their messages out as campaign voices push Republicans to vote for candidates.

May is one month before school districts must set budgets — less time than district officials say they need after voters decide. August is close to the start of the school year, and if a levy is rejected, there is no time to try again before the year begins. That leaves November. There won’t be any statewide races on the November ballot this year.

HOW WE GOT HERE

Districts statewide lost up to $82.5 million a year in the recession as lawmakers cut spending to balance the state’s budget. More than 90 of Idaho’s 115 districts now have supplemental levies in place as a result. By law, those levies are designed to be temporary, and most are limited to two years.

West Ada went to voters in 2012 for a two-year, $14 million-a-year levy to replace nine of the 14 school days and 45 teachers lost to budget cuts. Voters reapproved the levy in 2014. It expires when this school year ends next June.

Nampa at first didn’t go to voters when administrators overestimated student enrollment and double-counted some revenue, leaving trustees to think the district had $5.3 million more than it really did. When the district realized in 2012 what had happened, the superintendent resigned.

Desperate trustees asked voters in 2014 to pass the $3.4-million-a-year levy for two years to end 14 furlough days for teachers and restore 25 of 46 teaching positions cut after the budget bungling came to light.

In both districts the, supplementals were pitched as vital to meet basic needs: protecting teacher-student contact times in class, avoiding layoffs or furloughs, and paying the bills.

Nampa might take a different approach now. One idea is to increase the revenue for the next levy to $13.4 million over two years and put the additional money into new curriculum materials — which haven’t been updated in seven years — and better technology. Two other ideas would boost the property tax rates to get more money for teachers, help cover athletics and activities, and update the curriculum materials faster.

David Peterson, Nampa’s superintendent, is motivated by an independent audit of the district curriculum sought by trustees that showed the district needs better testing, curriculum management and communication of its curriculum among staff about what’s expected in instruction. The audit was conducted late last year by Phi Delta Kappa International, a organization of profession educators.

“We got this independent view that said, ‘Yeah, you are a train wreck heading downhill in a hurry and your brakes don’t work,’ ” said Peterson, who came to Nampa in 2014.

He sees new curriculum materials, at a cost of about $1.7 million, as essential to delivering reliable instruction throughout the district. The last curriculum materials adopted were math and science in 2008.

One example of lagging curriculum materials is language arts instruction at Columbia High School, where teachers have few resources for the new emphasis on nonfiction and informational reading growing out of Idaho’s version of the new Common Core standards in English and math.

Most nonfiction materials are classics by writers such as by Ben Franklin or Thomas Paine, said Gina Davis, who teaches 10th grade honors and regular English. She plumbs the Internet to find up-to-date materials. “I want things that are modern and reoccuring,” she said. “It consumes my planning time.”

Without a uniform curriculum, teachers are on their own throughout much of the system to teach what they think best. That means instruction may not line up with standards, Peterson said.

For example, he said, “We haven’t provided the support, structure or guidance for years to teachers so that we can guarantee to families that their kids will leave third grade with a certain set of skills.”

Mandy Simpson, a newly elected Nampa trustee, said curriculum materials and other upgrades are important. “There are some definite needs to be taken care of,” said Simpson, a former Nampa teacher who now teaches math at Capital High School in Boise. “I am hopeful the community understands.”

PAYING THE BILL

Peterson said he believes Nampa can meet those needs without raising the district’s overall tax rate to pay for school construction, and maintenance and supplemental levies, thanks to new development, rising property values and an increase in the state’s subsidy for existing school construction bond payments.

The tax rate is the dollar amount a homeowner pays for each $1,000 of taxable property value after the statewide homeowners exemption is deducted. Nampa School District residents pay $4.23 per $1,000 of taxable value, or $423 per $100,000.

The state subsidy helps certain districts, including Nampa, compensate for the imbalances among taxable property values between districts that lead to inequitable funding. About 30 percent of Nampa’s bond-repayment costs are paid by the subsidy.

WEST ADA’S APPROACH

In West Ada, the superintendent and the board have often been on different pages since two new board members took office in July. But they seem to be singing in unison about the need to renew the $28 million, two-year levy to avoid losing classroom days and teachers. The overall levy rates for bonds, the supplemental levy and maintenance would stay put at $3.99 per $1,000 of taxable value.

The board may also approve a small, one-year emergency levy that does not require voter approval. West Ada’s enrollment grew by about 1,000 students this fall. The emergency levy would help cover the cost of those students for this year. The board approved an emergency levy a year ago at 7 cents per $1,000 of taxable value. An early estimate is that a new levy will be closer to 21 cents.

The board spent part of this week reviewing the supplemental levy proposal. It plans to set the levy amount Thursday. Trustees are trying to build parental support, sending a message that the levy is necessary because lawmakers have not covered the cost of education in Idaho.

“Clearly we need it,” said Russell “Russ” Joki, one of the trustees elected in May. “The budget will be in free-fall if we don’t continue it.”

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