A section of Idaho Code allows school districts in the state to assess additional taxes burdens on residents within their boundaries without voter approval and one school board in southwestern Idaho is looking at doing just that.
Should lawmakers look at altering a measure that forces additional taxes on citizens without their approval? Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, chair of the House Education Committee, says he isn’t sure. “I would need to do a little more research and find out if it’s been used egregiously or sparingly, only in the most dire financial circumstances,” said Nonini.
He explained that even though lawmakers cut the public schools budget by $128 million during the 2010 legislative session – a cut which effects are just now being felt – they still accounted for student growth and new enrollments in districts. Nonini said that the issue has come up several times in past years and that it might come up again if districts are found to be abusing the power.
Another lawmaker on the education committee likened the cuts made by the Legislature to a bodily injury. “These (levies) are a Band-Aid on a very big wound,” said Rep. Liz Chavez, D-Lewistown. “And sometimes you need more than one.” She added that the provision in state law allows districts to be flexible in how they operate. “Well, what are you going to do?” asked Chavez. “Are you not going to take those students?”
She said the measure is one of necessity in these times of financial hardship. “We need to evaluate what the needs of the children are and how we meet those needs,” concluded Chavez, a former teacher. “We can do this.”
Trustees for the Nampa School District, one of the largest in Idaho, will look at assessing an emergency levy at their meeting Tuesday night. The reason? Enrollment may be up this year compared to last.
Dale Wheeler, chair of the Nampa school board, explained that if the district finds that its schools are handling a total of 100 or more additional students than last school year, the board could decide to assess the emergency levy, which, according to state law, requires no approval by taxpayers, only voter notification in local newspapers.
If passed, it would be the second levy assessed on the property Nampa residents in 2010. In late April, voters approved a two-year, $3.25 million levy with 80 percent of taxpayers giving it the OK.
Idaho Code Title 33, Chapter 8, along with Title 63, Chapter 8, outline the process that districts may use to force an emergency levy on taxpayers. Title 33 says that if the average daily attendance in a district is higher for a district than it was in a previous year, trustees can decide to approve the levy. Once the decision is made, trustees need to set an amount. Title 63 says that trustees can only assess up to .06 of a percent on properties within a district. The code also says that funds would need to be used to pay for extra costs incurred by additional students, like transportation, staffing, or school supplies.
Wheeler says that if trustees approve the levy, money would likely be used to pay staffers’ salaries and prevent layoffs. It might also be used to restore some programs, which he said were cut when the Idaho Legislature handed down a district budget $5.6 million less than last year.
If the emergency levy isn’t taken will education suffer in the Nampa School District? Not necessarily, says Wheeler. “We set our budget without the emergency levy being set in,” said Wheeler, who added that if trustees vote against the levy “there won’t be any more program cuts or layoffs.”
The news of another levy comes on the heels of an announcement by the Idaho Department of Education that Nampa schools will receive more than $2 million in federal money to shore up salaries and benefits of teachers and school administrators. Wheeler says if he has his way, that money will be banked for the next 12 months and used to prevent teacher cuts in 2011. Federal guidelines mandate that districts use the money within 27 months of receiving it.