Idaho School Districts Increasingly Rely On Levies To Pay The Bills

Mar 10, 2014

Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

School districts across Idaho will be asking voters to approve supplemental levies Tuesday. That includes Meridian, Nampa, and Kuna. Districts going to voters for more money has become commonplace in recent years.

A little more than a decade ago, about a third of Idaho schools had levies in place. Now it’s two thirds, according to Mike Ferguson, head of the non-profit research group Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy. In that time, the money coming from levies has tripled to about $190 million. 

Ferguson says the trend started before the Great Recession as state education funding didn't keep pace with school growth. Then, when the economy soured, education funding fell even further behind. Districts used levies, Ferguson says, to help pick up the slack.

“A typical school district, they basically have to have a supplemental levy just to conduct their basic operating affairs,” Ferguson says.  “And frankly that’s not how it’s supposed to be. The state was supposed to pick up the costs of operating the school districts. The supplemental levies are supposed to be for extra things. Today they’re just to pay the bills.”

One piece of evidence that levies are now for necessities not luxuries, Ferguson says, is that some school districts continue to furlough teachers.

“We did that at the depths of the Great Recession for state employees,” he says. “We had a year or two where state workers were subject to furloughs but we’ve moved beyond that. School districts are still doing that.”

He says while districts legitimately need levies, using them has created a situation with "haves" and "have-nots." Some districts with high property values can get extra money while districts with low property values or those that can’t convince their voters to approve levies, are suffering.  

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