State schools Superintendent Anne Fox drew criticism from school district officials across the state Thursday for her refusal to oppose the One Percent Initiative.
The property tax-limiting initiative was the topic of an in-depth presentation to about 180 school district officials during Fox’s annual meeting with superintendents.
The superintendents heard that the measure throws into doubt the status of voter-approved supplemental tax levies and raises other difficult questions about how schools will be financed if it passes.
In the midst of the discussion, Boise School District Deputy Superintendent Ed Davis stood up from his back-row seat and asked Fox about her position on the initiative.
“Our position is to take a neutral position and present information,” Fox said.
When Davis pressed further, noting that Gov. Phil Batt and others have taken high-profile stands on the measure, Fox said she supports property tax relief, although she’ll continue to advocate for school funding.
A few minutes later, Fox introduced state Board of Education member Carole McWilliam, and McWilliam drew applause by responding, “Dr. Fox, remember that the state board voted seven against and one abstain” on the initiative.
Fox was the one who had abstained.
In the break that followed, one school official after another congratulated Davis for asking his question, and many talked about it.
“Good question - it had to be asked,” said one superintendent.
“He said what we were all thinking, didn’t he?” said another.
Davis said, “I can’t believe that someone elected to the position of public school superintendent … could take a neutral position.
“What if it passed, what then would her position be? Would it be a position of advocacy for schools? It isn’t now.”
The presentation raised questions about whether schools would maintain their current levels of funding if the initiative passed, whether the state would have to pick up voter-approved supplemental and emergency tax levies and how the question of differing funding between districts would be addressed.
The initiative would limit property taxes to 1 percent of assessed value after exemptions, and would require the bulk of school funding to be shifted from the local property tax to the state general fund, which draws much of its money from sales and income taxes. Recent estimates suggest more than $200 million in school funding would be shifted.
Doug Cresswell, Coeur d’Alene superintendent, said, “I think as an individual and as a group of superintendents we’re disappointed that our superintendent hasn’t taken a position against it. The state board has, the governor has, the Idaho Association of School Administrators has, because of the detrimental effect it would have on the students in the state.
“I think she’s taken a political position based on some commitments she made probably during her campaign.”
When the group reconvened after its break, Fox pleaded, “I don’t want you to think that I don’t support education. I do. Whatever way the funding goes, please don’t think I won’t be fighting for as much money as I can get.”
In an interview, Fox said she recognizes that the initiative will mean a shift from property taxes to other taxes, not a reduction in taxes overall.
“It’s a taxpayer decision,” she said. “I’d like the voters to have the opportunity to decide.”
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