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Paying for what you get.

Paying for what you get.

Mitch Coffman
April 26, 2010

Even the most casual news observer has surely noticed it by now: public education budgets are dropping. For many school boards and administrators it’s the first time, ever, they’ve had to think about making do with considerably less.

The public trough is emptying – or at least becoming less full – at many levels of government. Most public school funding comes from the state and the legislature cut their allotment by 7.5 percent; there may be 5 percent more in cuts to come. Public schools also traditionally have garnered a large chunk of change from local property owners through property taxes. When property values were rising nobody could get very excited about the teeny percentage they personally had to pay into a multi-million dollar levy. Now, raising property taxes might be a tougher sell for districts.

Nobody thinks sales or income or property values will return to pre-2008 levels any time soon. Now would be the perfect time for districts to embrace technology that delivers more education for less money.

Instead, they’re engaging in some creative accounting, and some that is not so creative. With apologies to Tolstoy, the different ways school districts are doing everything except truly innovating shows us all well-run organizations are alike, but each wasteful one is wasteful in its own way.

Most districts are talking about cutting services combined with increasing a revenue stream. Take a look at this interesting chart from Sunday’s Idaho Statesman. The most flagrantly phony-baloney “fundraising” is taking place in Caldwell where they found space to serve 240 more at-risk students who have larger entitlements. Since an at-risk student has a bigger pot of money attached to him he increases Caldwell School District’s budget, but that does nothing to help the taxpayer. In fact, if that child was not previously classified as at-risk, Caldwell just made public education cost more.

Many school districts are trying to raise money with levy elections held on weird days at unusual polling locations. This dampens voter turnout so only parties most interested in keeping school budgets whole will make sure to be there. Fortunately this nonsense will be largely remedied in 2011 when districts will have to hold their levy elections on one of two days per year.

Every Tuesday between now and the primary election, Idaho school districts are holding levy elections. Nampa School District patrons are voting on a $1.65M supplemental levy this Tuesday, April 27. It requires only a simple majority to pass. If it fails, when the current $1.5M levy runs out in June property taxes will go down. If it passes, Nampa will go back to business as-close-to-usual as possible.

Nampa School District’s business of educating students cost $10,798 per pupil in 2007-2008. In 2008-2009 that number dropped to $8,810 per pupil*. Nampa school district patrons might be interested to know they can enroll their non-Catholic child at St. Paul’s School for $4,253 per year – a per-pupil price that falls if they enroll more than one child per family.

If every child in the Nampa School District is not getting an education twice as good as Catholic school, then why does their education cost twice as much?

* Per-pupil spending is calculated by dividing expenditures by Average Daily Attendance (ADA). Nampa's 2008-2009 total expenditure is here, and the district provided me with the ADA, a number lower than enrollment. A district may have 1000 students on the rolls, but if only 990 attend on the day the State takes the ADA snapshot they have an ADA of 990.

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