By Cameron Rasmusson
Just under $7 a month: that’s the projected monthly increase to property taxes Lake Pend Oreille officials are hoping voters will OK March 12 in the latest supplemental levy proposal.
School officials have reason to be confident that voters will ultimately approve the levy proposal, which would generate $25,400,000 over two years. Past supplemental levy requests have cleared by healthy percentages, with 70 percent voting in favor in 2015 and 63 percent in 2017.
But local voters have also shown they won’t rubber-stamp everything the school district requests. A 2016 plant levy proposal to raise $55 million for the reconstruction of school facilities failed with 5,493 votes against and 2,953 in favor. And each round of levy campaigning produces an increasingly organized opposition to any request for tax increases, resulting in tightening vote margins over recent years.
According to Lake Pend Oreille School District Superintendent Shawn Woodward, while the latest levy proposal does represent an increase from the last round, there’s also significant misinformation floating around that makes it difficult to communicate the facts. He invites anyone with questions to contact the district.
“What we’re happy is happening is we’re clarifying a lot of misinformation that a small group of people is generating,” Woodward said.
Like previous years, LPOSD officials make their case by breaking down the levy numbers. This year’s levy represents a significant increase over the previous iteration, jumping from a two-year total of $17 million to $25 million. The reason for that, officials say, is the struggle retaining local teachers given the high living costs relative to similarly sized communities. Combined with lower-than-average teacher salaries, it adds up to a high degree of staff turnover.
“(People) are quite surprised when they find we’re not as competitive as they thought when it comes to salaries,” said Woodward.
They’re also surprised, he said, when they learn that LPOSD ranks 25 percent below the statewide average for local school taxes.
It’s undoubtedly true it’s difficult to afford a Sandpoint home on a teacher’s salary. While the median home value in Idaho is $167,900, the Bonner County median home value is nearly $56,000 higher at $212,100. And while the average monthly earnings in Idaho are $4,097, in Bonner County they sit at $3,641.42.
Woodward said the levy’s passage means regionally competitive salaries for local teachers, which will hopefully contribute toward improving LPOSD’s employee retention. In addition, as the replacement to the last levy, it funds the usual programs and employee positions: a third of district staff amounting to 300 full- and part-time positions, extracurricular activities, technology and curricular materials, reduced class size and support for rural schools. Altogether, the levy represents about a third of the school budget.
For many levy opponents, the size of the increase is their biggest complaint. While the projected increase of just under $7 a month per $250,000 of home valuation with a homeowner’s exemption might not be significant to some, it adds up for those on a fixed income.
Nevertheless, there’s also inaccurate information muddying the waters, Woodward said. He’s seen claims that the school board intends to introduce a second levy, like the 2016 plant levy, to fund new school facilities when no such decision has been made. He’s also seen inaccurate figures being thrown around about compensation for LPOSD’s high-level administrators.
As LPOSD officials make the case for the levy, the Idaho Legislature is weighing options on increased support for Idaho schools. No matter what changes occur at the state level, however, Woodward believes local levies will always be an important part of school funding. It’s an element that is built into most local taxing structures, he said, but Idaho is one of the few states that require voter approval.
“Most states have a higher amount of money coming from the local taxpayers,” Woodward said. “The local property owner share is lower in Idaho than just about anywhere else.”
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