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Time to change tune on school bonds and levies

Time to change tune on school bonds and levies

Fred Birnbaum
May 4, 2015

If there is one constant about the public education debate, particularly in Idaho, it is that current funding levels are, “inadequate.”

There are many verses to this song, but the refrain remains the same: give us more cash.  The verses in this song include references to class size, teacher pay, books and supplies, crumbling buildings, new buildings, special needs, early childhood development and on and on.

Occasionally we hear references to results, but usually in the context of spending more money – if we want better results we need to spend more money.

And don’t worry, this song is about poetry -- not logic -- so nothing really needs to be proven. It is a tune about how underfunding has victimized public education.

At what point do we separate the facts from the melody?

In the last two fiscal years, 2015 and 2016, legislators have grown state education spending by 5.1% and 7.4%, respectively.

Local funding includes a basic property tax component that has also increased for most Idahoans as the economy has recovered. Despite the generosity of the Legislature, a number of school districts are still pursuing supplemental levies and bonds.

That’s right; the totality of federal money, state general fund money, and property tax money is not enough – another dollop is needed in the form of levies and bonds.

These are upcoming school bond and levy elections for the following school districts this year: Horseshoe Bend, Notus, Cottonwood, Kamiah, Nezperce, Salmon River, Troy, and Whitepine. Idaho voters should understand what specific needs are being met before approving more spending. Will dollars top off pension system payments, for example?

Maybe it would be prudent to let the increase in general fund spending take effect before approving even more money. Voters in districts asking for supplemental levies should examine their levy rates relative to other districts with similar student populations and compare the overall spending before approving higher taxes.

Idahoans might be surprised what they find when they start digging.

The highest spending district in the state spends roughly 6 times per student what the lowest one does. The variation in spending is tremendous and partly reflects economies of scale. Even for similarly sized districts the variation in large.  The eight districts referenced, using the most recently available 2012-2013 school year data, have total per pupil spending ranging from $8,851 in Notus to $18,772 for Nezperce.

While the average spending in Idaho might be low, the range is huge, with the higher spending districts higher than the US average.
Perhaps it is time to look at the composition of spending, district by district, and not just fork over more money.

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