Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Horseshoe Bend School District Supplemental Levy

I mentioned a week or so ago that there was apparently a supplemental levy (a special tax increase) vote coming up in the Horseshoe Bend Unified School District.  I also mentioned that it almost seemed like a secret election because of the lack of discussion of it.

Yesterday I received a flyer in the mail from the Friends of Horseshoe Bend Schools that gave me quite a bit more information upon which to make a decision as to how I would vote. It is a reminder of the famous saying by Mark Twain that it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt.

Here's the first page of the flyer:

One of the problems is that Idaho has reduced its direct funding to local school districts. Our district is not the only one having this problem, and other districts are also requesting supplemental levees. 

Another one of the problems is a drop in student enrollment: "from 305 students in 2008 to 276 students in 2013."  I am also led to believe, by things I have been told by people who are associated with the district, that there has been a decline in Average Daily Attendance, but I'm not sure if this is based on the decline in enrollment, or a decline in the percentage of students who are actually present on any given day.  The district went to a four-day schedule since 2008; I find myself wondering if, even at the same enrolled student count, there may have been a reduction in ADA because of the shortened week. Consider what happens if a student misses one day out of five because of illness, compared to missing one day out of four because of illness. All other things being equal, a shortened number of days means a lower ADA. Perhaps state law compensates for this, but I do not know enough to be sure.

Another part of the problem of funding is because of reduced funds coming from timber sales. Something that is not widely recognized in the urban environmentalist circles is that rural districts have long been dependent on national forest timber sales to support schools as partial compensation for national forest lands not paying property taxes. The environmentalists have been getting their way on protecting spotted owls by reducing harvest on national forest lands, and I believe this is part of the problem (although probably not the entire problem, perhaps not even a big part of the problem).

However, the rest of the flyer wipes out my sympathy very quickly. The supplemental levy would cost $13.72 per month per $100,000 assessed property value.  For us, that would be more than a $400 increase in property taxes -- almost a 50% increase of our property taxes. This would hurt, even though much of that increase would bring about a reduction in federal income taxes owed. For many other property owners in this district, especially the ones with houses that are closer to the average in value, about $100,000, this might be the difference between continuing to own, or selling and moving, or even worse: foreclosure. This is an astonishing increase to request, and I cannot imagine that many property owners in this district are going to be willing to almost double their property taxes without a spectacularly compelling argument.  This flyer makes a spectacularly compelling argument, but in the opposite direction.

One of the explanations for where the money would be spent from the supplemental levy is "Fully Fund the District Athletics."  On the reverse side of the flyer is the list of actions that the district will have to take if the levy does not pass:

Note that again we are being told "No district-funded athletics."  We are not talking about eliminating physical education; we're talking about sending the football team and other sports teams on bus rides to other school districts, which in this part of Idaho is always a long drive. If a school district has plenty of money, I don't really have a big objection to an athletic program, but it is a luxury, and in some respects, a somewhat deceptive luxury. 

I had a student several years ago who by his own admission never really learned how to write because he could pitch a 98 mph fastball, and as a result he was allowed to graduate near the top of his high school class, in spite of never really learning the basic skills that a high school student needs.  He was a bit upset about all of this; to his credit, he blamed himself for taking the easy way out rather than blaming the school. This was actually a pretty mature response on his part; he was manning up instead of directing blame outward.  Nonetheless, when schools encourage teenagers and parents to think that athletics are a way out, a method of getting a college scholarship instead of developing the fundamental skills of composition, math, and science, they are doing not only those students, but the entire society, a disservice. I would be curious to see how much of the $60,000 deficit the district has can be eliminated by making the athletic programs entirely privately funded.

The flyer is quite proud that the schools have a 100% graduation rate for the past two years, and that 100% of the graduates were accepted into some sort of "higher education program" (which could mean quite a number of things actually). They are also proud that a current student is a National Merit Scholar. For a district with this number of graduating seniors that is actually pretty decent.  

I am not having much luck finding a detailed budget for the school, which would enable me to look a little bit more carefully at where the money is going.  The pitiful sums that are being paid to the classified staff just make me want to cry; the certified and administrative staff contracts are not quite so tragically low, but they do not seem particularly outrageous either. The only really impressive salary is the Special Ed teacher, and she's only making 53,000 a year and change.  (In rural Idaho, that is actually a decent, although not spectacular salary.)  Even the administrators are often one-half or one-third time, as is appropriate for such a small district. (There are other districts in the state that are also quite small, but which what I have read, have full-time administrative staffs.)  

I find that I have many unanswered questions as a result of trying to figure out what their problem is, and how to solve it.  I do know that the supplemental levy is simply breathtaking, and I find myself wondering if the seal of the Friends of Horseshoe Bend Schools on the second page of the flyer may be describing the real state of things: an enormous building that is about to drag all those people off the edge of the cliff.

I see that of the five trustee positions (school board for those of you outside of Idaho), position three is currently vacant.  There are rumors that most of the remaining positions will be vacant for the May 21 school trustee elections, and I have been encouraged by some people to run for the position of my district. I am beginning to think that the only way to get the level of information that I need might be to do this.

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