BOISE – The group behind the referendum campaign to challenge Idaho schools Superintendent Tom Luna’s “Students Come First” reform laws is launching a new project aimed at gathering ideas on how to make Idaho schools better.
The volunteer group has dubbed its new project the “Great Idaho Schools Project,” and plans to incorporate the input into a report to be issued in January and distributed to school boards, administrators, state leaders and the public.
“We want to do what Mr. Luna, the Legislature, and Gov. Otter did not do: Involve a wide array of the public in a conversation about how to build great public schools,” said Mike Lanza, co-founder of Idaho Parents and Teachers Together.
“We don’t know yet what we’ll hear from people,” Lanza said. “But we do believe that Idahoans want a more inclusive process than was employed by our elected leaders to determine the future direction of our public schools.”
The reform laws passed despite an outpouring of public testimony against them. The parents and teachers group then collected more than 70,000 signatures to put the new laws to an up-or-down vote in the 2012 general election.
Luna’s chief of staff, Luci Willits, had this reaction: “We recognize we have great schools in Idaho, but we know we must do better if our students are going to compete in this global economy. After a statewide general election and months of public debate, the Idaho Legislature passed a comprehensive plan to ensure every student graduates from high school prepared to succeed in the 21st century. No other stakeholder group brought forward an alternate plan or ways the Legislature could spend our existing resources differently. We at the State Department of Education are moving forward and working to successfully implement the laws the Idaho Legislature and governor put in place.”
The new laws took effect immediately, though their changes are phased in; they include shifting school funds from teacher and administrator salaries to computer purchases and a new focus on online learning, and limiting collective bargaining rights for teachers. If the referendum passes in November 2012, the laws would be repealed.
State taxes on track
Idaho’s general fund revenue report is in for September, and it’s almost exactly on target, coming in very slightly over the forecast level (about $69,400 above). That means state revenues for September of $229.1 million were on target, at 9.5 percent higher than the same month the previous year.
State chief economist Derek Santos reports that while sales taxes came in slightly below forecast for the month, at $91.6 million compared to a forecast $93 million, all other categories of revenue came in ahead of forecast, including individual income tax receipts, which were $1 million ahead of forecast, at $93 million. Since the fiscal year began July 1, total state tax collections are coming in very close to the forecast, lagging just 1.4 percent behind ($9.2 million).
The state Tax Commission has set the maximum homeowner’s exemption from property taxes for 2012, and it’s lower – $83,974 compared with $92,040 this year. The exemption is tied to the Idaho Home Price Index, so it goes up and down with Idaho home values, under a 2006 law. The maximum exemption hit a high of $104,471 in 2009, then began declining as Idaho home values dropped.
The homeowner’s exemption exempts 50 percent of the value of an owner-occupied home from property taxes, but it’s capped at the annually adjusted maximum. That maximum was set at a fixed $50,000 for 23 years, from 1983 to 2005 – causing a big property tax shift onto homeowners as home values escalated but the exemption stayed the same – before the 2006 Legislature decided to raise it to $75,000 and tie it to future rises and falls in home prices.
The drop in the maximum from 2011 to 2012 won’t make any difference for owners of lower-priced homes, according to Alan Dornfest, property tax policy supervisor for the Tax Commission, who noted, “There will be no change in the amount of the homeowner’s exemption for anyone whose home has a 2012 market value under $167,948.”