Tuesday, February 20, 2024

OPINION: The forever levy

by BRENT REGAN/Common Sense
| March 3, 2023 1:00 AM

Our public schools badly need the accountability only competition can provide but the Freedom in Education Act, a bill that would have allowed some education dollars to follow the student, died in the Senate on Monday. In March, parents are being asked to give up their remaining ability to hold the district administrators accountable by voting to approve a forever levy.

Give us more money and we’ll do a better job is the mantra of the Coeur d’Alene School District No. 271, the sixth largest school district in Idaho. After having its levy rejected by the voters last August, the district administrators are back, asking again.

In August, the district asked for $8 million a year for 10 years, $80 million total. Coming this March 14 are two levies totaling $30 million a year for five years ($150 million total) followed by $25 million a year forever levy. Together that's $626/year for the average homeowner. Apparently the district administrators are tired of asking for the money and want you to just give it to them without ever having to ask again or have to explain what they really did with the money.

Money is fungible so just because they say that levy dollars will be spent on something it doesn’t mean it will be spent on that something. You need to look at the entire budget, not just a tiny part, too see if you are willing to be taxed forever.

I can attest as a former trustee that the specter of asking the voters to approve a levy looms large when considering budgetary items and new programs. If the forever levy passes, that fiscal restraint would be removed and it is a safe bet that within a handful of years the district will be back insisting they need more of your hard earned dollars “for the children.”

The education establishment often makes the claim that Idaho has the lowest spending in dollars per student. This claim fails to account for the cost of living. When you rank education spending as a percentage of household income, Idaho is in the top third of the nation.

Also, the amount of money spent has no correlation to the quality of the education. Washington, D.C., spends about $23,000 per student while the Coeur d’Alene School District has an all funds budget of roughly $125 million for about 10,000 students which is $12,500 per student, nearly half of what Washington, D.C., spends but Idaho schools rank well above DC schools in scholastic performance.

It is the legislature, not the individual citizens who have the constitutional duty to fund public schools, but Idahoans are generous and when the local school district asked for “supplemental” funds, we opened our wallets. Of course budgets always expand to absorb all available funds, and then some more, so what was “supplemental” soon became “necessary.” Once the budgetary pressure was reduced, new programs were implemented and new administrative positions were filled even in the face of falling test scores.

It seems the administration’s only solution to poor test scores is to increase spending, enlarge the administrative overhead, and look to new progressive programs that focus on “social emotional learning” and “equity,” which is newspeak for socialism.

Meanwhile needed facility maintenance expenses were deferred; put off until later because there were more important things that urgently need that money. Those more important things are mostly not teacher salaries.

Here is a “sanity check.”

The SD271 All Funds spending per student is about $12,500 so a class of 25 students takes $312,500 per year. However the average teacher salary is $54,700/year, less than 18% of the total.

The 400 teachers needed to teach 10,000 students totals about $22 million in salary or about one fifth of the total budget.

Yet when the school district administrators ask for more money, they say it is to hire and retain good teachers. Shouldn’t they be telling us that less than 18 cents of every dollar goes to pay teacher salaries? But it gets worse. Teacher pay increases are usually percentage increases so the teachers at the high end of the pay scale get more dollars than the entry level teachers; the ones we want to retain. For every dollar of increased tax, entry level teachers would be lucky to see 6 cents split between them.

However, if the administrative overhead was cut by just 10%, those funds could give teachers at least a 25% pay raise without asking for an additional tax dollar.

In business, an employee who consistently does a good job is gladly rewarded with a pay raise. If an employee came to me and demanded to be paid more before they would do a better job I would tell them to try that strategy with their next employer.

The KCRCC stands steadfast with the citizens of Kootenai County and in opposition to both Coeur d’Alene School District’s levies.

Your chance to send a clear message is this March 14.

It’s just common sense.

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Brent Regan is chairman of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee.