Kootenai School District 274 trustees decided Monday, Jan. 14, to ask voters in March for the biggest supplemental tax levy in the school district’s history.
It wasn’t a decision made lightly, with trustees weighing the pros and cons for over half of a three-hour meeting. They finally voted 4-0 to ask for a $1.2 million supplemental levy next year and the year after for a total of $2.4 million.
The discussion began with Superintendent Lynette Ferguson detailing a bare-bones budget that only held the line with this year’s figures. Then, she presented a menu of modest increases in salaries, technology, and other needs, including a set-aside to replace a school bus in about two years.
Trustees went through the list, item by item, agreeing with some, rejecting others and cutting amounts for still more.
The district’s financial woes cut across the entire spectrum of school funding–with a special twist.
State school support, which pays for the majority of Idaho education costs, has been cut every year in recent memory. In 2007, state funds accounted for 84 percent of the district’s revenue. By last year, after several years of steady cuts, state funds paid only 64 percent of the tab, leaving property taxpayers to pick up the rest through supplemental tax levies.
Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna has asked the state legislature for a 2 percent increase, but no one knows yet if it will be approved, or for how much.
Last year Luna promised Idaho schools $33 million to fund his educational initiatives, which voters soundly defeated in November. The money’s still there. Now the Idaho Attorney General has ruled that the Department of Education does not have the authority to release these funds to schools–even the promised math and science allocations that were included in the local school district’s budget this year.
The special twist is that state school support is based on the number of students, and student population in District 274 is shrinking. Even with a bigger percentage of state money, the district could get fewer actual dollars based on the number of students. Ferguson estimates the district will educate between 208 and 211 pupils this year. And, with a second-grade class with only 4 students, a smaller district is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
Trustees were mindful that their auditor told them last month that they need to add to the district’s fund balance in order to equalize cash flow throughout the year. There is an 8-month lag between receipt of the second half of property taxes and when the check is sent to the schools. As a result, there are four months of the school year–February through May–when the district receives zero property tax money to pay its bills.
A small amount of the proposed budget will be budgeted to increase staff salaries. While the amount is 1-1/2 percent above the current level, it won’t translate to an across-the-board increase for teachers or classified staff. Rather, the extra funds will allow the district to bring some of its classified wages in line with neighboring districts.
Classified employees are non-professional and para-professional employees such as instructional aides, bus drivers, secretaries, cooks and custodians. They are typically paid by the hour. Neither teachers nor classified staff has received a raise in 4 years, and classified employees actually took pay cuts two years ago.
Trustee Will Butler grumbled about the technology items, which will include replacing switches and servers to the current outdated computer system. “I’m a book kind of guy,” he declared.
“This is the same thing,” shot back John Myrhe. “Computers are the new books.” Butler grudgingly agreed.
Two years ago, voters gave the district nearly $1.3 million over two years–$647,000 annually. That supplemental levy will expire after this year and be removed from property tax bills. The proposed new supplemental levy would be in place of the existing levy, not in addition to it.
Trustees had to dip into other funds to make up a shortfall this year. Now there are no other funds to tap.
“We have scrimped and scrimped and scrimped, and now we are at the bottom of the barrel,” the superintendent told trustees. “There is no place left to go.”
Ferguson will release the exact budget figures at the Feb. 11 trustees’ meeting, but it’s definite for now: school patrons will have the opportunity to vote on a new, two-year supplemental levy, replacing the old one, on March 4. And the amount will be $2.4 million, or $1.2 million for each of two years.
–© Maxine Sullivan