In March, many voters will go to the polls and ask their patrons to support a supplemental levy or facility bonds for their school districts. At that time, many of those district trustees, superintendents and school staff will hold their breath and hope for the best.
For them, the election for this supplemental levy may affect their ability to give their teachers a sensible pay increase. For others, it may determine whether they can offer full-day kindergarten to parents at no cost. In some regions, it may determine whether the school district can remain a member of a consortium that provides career-technical education to its students.
Whatever the reason may be, one thing remains true about every levy or bond that goes on a ballot: It is a risky, nerve-racking method to fund our public schools. For school districts, asking their taxpayers to contribute to their school districts is neither a desirable nor advantageous method. Supplemental levies have, unfortunately, become commonplace to finance the basic operation of a school district. These voter-approved levies fund anywhere from 10% to 43% of school district budgets.
Our office gets a unique perspective on the things that take place when a school district runs a bond or levy election. For months, district staff and board members go to great lengths to educate their community about the supplemental levy or bond their patrons will see on the ballot. Prior to putting a levy or bond on a ballot, it goes through layers of careful consideration. Much attention is given to the impact on the district taxpayers. Much attention is given to educate the patrons, all of them, as to the need for the levy or bond, the services that will be funded by the levy and the financial impact on taxpayers.
District officials speak at town halls, rotary luncheons, church functions, radio programs and more. This is on top of open board meetings, properly noticed working groups, media announcements, website information and articles in the district’s newspaper educating their community about the bond or levy election. The decision to run a bond or levy is not made in a silo — it is made in consultation with parents, community leaders, legal counsel, public finance operators and more.
We do not know of a single educational leader who enjoys or wants to hold a bond or levy election. In those same months that they work to educate their patrons about their levy or bond, school board members and superintendents are often made out to be evil individuals who are attempting to bully or harass taxpayers.
Nevertheless, the truth is, without supplemental levies, it may be nearly impossible for many school districts to retain the staff they already have. With rising health insurance costs, the demand to keep up with private-sector salaries to retain effective educators, and the increased costs to provide services that the community expects and deserves from their school district, these levies truly are “operational” in nature and should never be considered “supplemental” to the school districts that rely on them.
This is why the Idaho School Boards Association opposes the removal of two election dates given to school districts during election consolidation over a decade ago: because it has the very real opportunity to further jeopardize school districts that are already placed in precarious situations.
School districts begin collective bargaining with their teachers in February or March of every year, and the process can take several months to complete. If a school levy went on the ballot in May and failed, November is too late. By then, the school district will have already made tough financial decisions likely to result in a reduction in force, cuts to athletic or other extracurricular programs, and more.
In a perfect world, no school or district would need to seek additional resources in order to provide quality education to the students in Idaho’s communities. There are many efforts underway currently to make this a possibility. Until then, we ask that the Legislature keep those four election dates intact so that school district trustees can determine what is necessary for the health and educational needs of the students in their districts. We owe it to the students to make every year a year where they can experience new things, learn and sow the seeds of success.