May 20, 2011 in Idaho

Idaho voters raise taxes for schools after lawmakers wouldn’t

By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE - Idahoans around the state are voting to raise their own property taxes in the wake of a third straight year of cuts in school funding approved by state lawmakers.

In elections in 65 of the state’s 115 school districts this spring, 54 have been successful – that’s 83 percent - in passing supplemental property tax levies to boost basic operating funds for local schools, while 11 have failed.

Among the success stories: Boundary County schools, which failed to convince local voters to approve a $1.4 million-a-year, two-year levy in March, went back to their voters this week and won approval for the measure.

Boundary’s was one of just two levies that failed in March, when 29 Idaho school districts sought property tax hikes. This week, another 36 districts ran levy elections, and 27 of those passed. Among the nine that didn’t: A big, $18.5 million-a-year levy for the state’s largest school district, Meridian, which is near Boise. That district now is mulling cuts ranging from laying off teachers and principals to eliminating dental and vision coverage for staff to slicing up to 14 days off the school year.

North Idaho districts mostly have been successful when they’ve sought additional funding. This week’s successes included a $1.6 million-a-year, two-year levy in St. Maries; a $2.35 million one-year levy in the West Bonner County School District; a $647,000-a-year, two-year levy in the Kootenai school district; and four successful levy votes in Latah County.

In March, the Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls, Lake Pend Oreille, and Genesee school districts all passed tax levies.

Melissa McGrath, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said, “I think it really shows that every community makes its own decision on levies. We at the state level do not get involved in local levy elections; we leave it up to the local communities.”

In Meridian, which in the past has had little trouble passing big school tax levies, tea party groups and others organized against the measure, saying they didn’t want taxes increased.

“In some areas the voters agreed with the school district and wanted the levy, and in other communities we saw that maybe they wanted more information or that they did not want their taxes raised this year at this time,” McGrath said.

Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association, which opposed the budget cuts, said, “Our state officials don’t have the will to adequately fund education in Idaho. They say they won’t raise taxes, but they’re simply passing the buck to local communities. … Thankfully, most Idaho citizens continue to step up and invest in our children’s future when the state refuses to do so.”

Statewide, Idaho voters this spring have so far approved more than $77.3 million a year in additional property taxes for their local schools; another round of levy elections is scheduled for Aug. 30.

The moves come as Idaho lawmakers this year cut state funding for schools for the third straight year, saying they didn’t want to raise taxes. On top of this year’s unprecedented $128.5 million cut in state funding, lawmakers this year cut the school budget for next year by an additional $47 million.

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