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EDITORIAL: Ask for money sooner, not later

| June 30, 2024 1:00 AM

There’s no good time to ask people for money.

But some times are a little less bad than others.

Idaho’s public schools, the vast majority of them, anyway, are forced to ask property owners to fill in some critical funding gaps not covered by the state or federal government. These gaps are filled in the form of bonds for capital projects and levies for other expenses, like personnel.

Most districts rely heavily on “supplemental” levies — a misnomer because these levies often fund a quarter or so of a school district’s annual operating budget. That’s the case with Coeur d’Alene School District, whose current $25 million per year, two-year levy expires next year.

Because of changes made by the Legislature, asking voters to support levies or bonds during special elections in March or August is no longer an option. Now school districts have just two choices: the May primary or the November general election.

The Coeur d’Alene School Board is weighing how much voters should be asked to pay, and when they should be asked. It’s early yet, but there are only two choices for when and two leading thoughts about how much. Today we’ll focus on when — either this November or next May.

The vote here is for November.

By putting the request on the Nov. 5 ballot, school trustees do run some considerable risks. The measure would appear far down on district patrons’ ballots, meaning it might be missed or not seriously considered by some voters who are focused primarily or exclusively on top of the ballot battles.

This being a presidential election year, voter turnout will likely be exceedingly high — perhaps three or more times as high as a typical primary election. Presidential elections also tend to attract many voters who pay attention to little else, so banking on informed voters deciding the fate of essential funding for our public schools is a roll of the dice. 

In some quarters, school officials have preferred the special election dates because turnout is actually lower. That tends to bring out only the voters who are most passionate for or against the tax request, but it also goes a long way toward drawing voters who know something about the measure they’re being asked to decide.

From a purely practical perspective, November makes by far the most sense for local school districts seeking levy support. If their ask fails, they have one more chance to return to voters next May and convince them of the importance of that funding. A failure in November would provide school board members with enough information to recraft their request, work hard to inform the public and come back with something more acceptable in May.

Waiting until May with a one-shot funding request leaves no room for adjustment other than figuring out how many teachers and other staff Coeur d’Alene schools would have to live without if the levy fails.