Three North Idaho school districts hope voters of all stripes head to the polls Tuesday, the day Republicans in the state hold their presidential primary.
All three districts have a lot riding on Tuesday’s ballot, with school funding measures that account for 20 to 40 percent of their operating budgets. But with such high interest in the presidential race, voter turnout will be heavily conservative for the tax measures.
“It will be a challenge on Tuesday, no doubt. But I’m confident folks know our reputation and respect that we’ve always been frugal about how we do business,” Lakeland School District Superintendent Brad Murray said Thursday.
School districts usually pick the first Tuesday in March, when no partisan races are on the ballot, to ask voters to renew supplemental tax levies. But this year the Idaho GOP as well as the state’s Constitution Party moved their presidential primaries to March 8, while the Democrats will caucus two weeks later.
As a result, a higher proportion of fiscally conservative voters is expected Tuesday in the three districts seeking approval of tax levies: Lakeland, with schools in Rathdrum, Athol and Spirit Lake, and the Kellogg and Wallace districts in Shoshone County.
“Our district has a high number of Republican voters anyway,” Murray said. “I think people value the programs we provide. We’re confident going in, but it is an additional element that we’re up against.”
Some school districts around Idaho dodged the primary date by putting their levy requests to a vote last November, according to the Idaho School Boards Association.
“We saw many more elections in November for levies than we have in the past, because they were looking forward to this March election and realizing it would be on a partisan ballot,” said Karen Echeverria, the association’s executive director.
That would have been difficult, Murray said, because the Lakeland district last fall did not have a firm count on this year’s student enrollment – a major piece of the school funding formula – nor any indication how much the Legislature would increase state education spending for the coming year.
“We would have had to scramble to get everything in place, and at that time we really didn’t have a clear idea of our needs going into next year, so we decided to wait,” he said.
Wallace district officials talked about going out in November but saw similar logistical challenges, Superintendent Robert Ranells said.
In his 45 years in education Ranells hasn’t seen a voting scenario quite like Tuesday’s. “Not sure what impact the Republican primary will have on voter turnout and the like,” he said. “It will be interesting.”
He added that he is confident the community will support the schools, as has been the case in decades of levy votes.
“The question is, how many of those folks will get up and go out and vote on (Tuesday).”
Both the Wallace and Kellogg districts are asking voters to approve slightly smaller levy amounts than what passed two years ago.
The partisan factor in Tuesday’s voting could have a “huge impact” on how the proposed levy does, Kellogg Superintendent Woody Woodford said.
“What we’re trying to do is make that sure everybody exercises their right to vote,” Woodford said. “I would hope that everyone understands how important education of kids is, no matter their party affiliation.”
School levies have become a critical component of funding for Idaho’s public schools in the years since the Great Recession prompted deep cuts in state spending. Idaho spends substantially less per student than the neighboring states of Washington, Oregon and Montana.
“It doesn’t cost any less to educate our kids in Idaho than it does surrounding states,” Woodford said. “The only place we have to go to make up that difference is the local levies.”
Lakeland’s Murray said, “It’s imperative we get this passed just to continue with the same programs, the same number of teachers, for all aspects of learning.”
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