Idaho Democrats had many priorities entering this session, but two topped the list. First, a mandate from voters to increase school investment. Our schools – rural schools, in particular – face dire challenges in retaining staff and a nearly $1 billion backlog in facilities needs. Second, finally address property taxes. Now these priorities, shared by Idahoans, are at risk.
A fast-moving GOP bill, HB 292, couples property tax reduction homeowners desperately need with a poison pill threatening the financial stability of our schools. Specifically, it eliminates the March election schools use for voter-approved levies and bonds.
Ideally, schools would receive adequate, reliable state funding and would never need levies and bonds. These options are challenging, uncertain measures to secure funding. Schools only pursue them to ensure a quality education for their students.
Sadly, levy reliance has become the norm. Eighty percent of Idaho’s districts require supplemental levies for day-to-day costs like teacher salaries, supplies and utilities. The March election date allows them to make timely salary offers to retain their staff for the following school year. If schools have to wait until the May election to get their full budget, many educators may have taken more certain job offers across state or district lines. The only other election opportunities, August and November, are generally useless because the school year has already started.
Even with levies, Idaho is 51st in the nation for school investment. It’s worrisome to imagine where our kids would be without an opportunity for voters to bolster school funding when needed. And while the state is poised to boost investment this year, this commitment is never guaranteed for the future and is less than half the funds school districts sought in last Tuesday’s election.
At its core, this legislation strips control from local school boards and voters themselves. Residents will no longer have the power to make timely decisions about what supplemental funding they wish to support.
This bill recently passed the House just like another recent property tax “fix.” In 2021, HB 389 was sold as critical legislation to reduce property taxes. Of course, the promised benefits never materialized. But the bill did cause harm, taking away property tax assistance from some low-income seniors and impeding local government’s ability to set budgets. Republican legislators and the governor enacted bad legislation because they got the message there would be no other option to meet a desperate constituent need.
Today, we need the courage and thoughtful reflection that was lacking in 2021. The Idaho Senate and Governor Little must hold the line and reject HB 292 as written. The future of our schools depends on it.
Lauren Necochea, Idaho Democratic Party Chair