Heather Disselkoen

Heather Disselkoen

With so many education-based public sector jobs in Pocatello, I’ve wondered — is it possible the supplemental levy has largely been supported for so many years because of “built in” educator votes? Relatively few citizens ask probing questions and overall voter turnout is typically low. Do “numbers” and “facts” matter? I played a part in that when my kids were young. I supported the levy primarily based on the mantra “it’s for the kids.”

Maybe the Pocatello-Chubbuck School District 25 supplemental levy shouldn’t be just a yes/no debate, but one involving consideration of how much is “adequate” as additional funding per-student regardless of whether the state someday increases funding or whether citizens are asked to continue funding any perceived state funding gap or shortage. Especially since there’s a wide range in what various school districts determine to be that gap or shortage.

Isn’t it reasonable to ask how much is enough? Is the answer the FY2021 $1,991.24 per student that Coeur D’Alene levies through its supplemental U/R levy (with no district plant facilities levy) for 10,044 students; or is it the $153.43 per student that Jefferson District 251 levies through its emergency levy for 6,342 students (with no district plant facilities levy)?

All calculations are based on the Idaho Department of Education’s “Fall 2020 Enrollment District Comparison” numbers and levy information from a 12/17/2020 State Tax Commission record request. Admittedly, there may be other factors at play, but consider the following.

Pocatello-Chubbuck SD25 levies for a $9,250,000 supplemental levy ($775.81 per student for 11,923 students) and an additional $6,103,748 plant facilities levy ($511.93 per student) for a total of $15,353,748 equaling $1,287.74 per student. This total does not include the additional SD25 tort levy or the current 10-year automatic 5 percent annual increase to the plant facilities levy.

Examining SD25 in a grouping of 10 districts (nearest in enrollment numbers), SD25 is the second highest below Coeur D’Alene ($1,991.24 per student) in a comparison including “supplemental” type levies (supplemental U/R, permanent supplemental and emergency U/R), “plant facilities” levies and “maintenance and operations” levies. Bonds, tort and judgment levies were excluded. Bonds were excluded because it is generally understood that bonds are for building new school facilities (although funding can also be used for repair, remodel, or maintenance of existing facilities).

Geographically, looking at the same comparison which includes the sum of supplemental-type levies and plant facilities levies only:

Bonneville 93 levies $8,600,000 ($649.74 per student) for 13,236 students

Idaho Falls 91 levies $9,242,805 ($922.99 per student) for 10,014 students

Twin Falls 411 levies $9,750,000 ($1,056.22 per student) for 9,231 students

Pocatello 25 levies $15,353,748 ($1,287.74 per student) for 11,923 students

It must be stated that all three comparative districts have one or more bonds whereas District 25 currently has no bonds. The addition of bonds does increase overall tax burden to these comparative districts, but bonds differ significantly in purpose as well as terms versus the necessity (or funding value) of supplemental levies revisited biennially.

School districts across the state reason that supplemental levies (and plant facilities levies) are necessary due to a state funding gap/shortage, whereas communities have long understood they must decide when to invest in replacing old schools with new ones or adding new schools. Our newest building is Century High School, completed in approximately 1999. But many SD25 buildings are 50-plus years old. At some point, discussions must occur on how to move forward with our aging facilities and whether our aging schools impact economic development. How much additional investment is the community willing to make?

With the recent large property valuation increases (and more increases guaranteed), it’s of little consolation to taxpayers that levy rates have decreased as emphasized by SD25. It is completely misleading for SD25 to claim in their “Understanding SD25’s Supplemental Levy: Facts and Information” sheet and video that “the overall burden to taxpayers is lower, demonstrated by a consistent decrease in monthly contributions since FY2017.” That statement is not factual. Rather, it is an egregious over-simplification. The levy rate is only one factor in the tax equation that equals total tax “burden.” My out-of-pocket tax “burden” for the supplemental levy has increased 20.7 percent since FY17 contrary to the SD25 statements.

One thing is clear. Pocatello-Chubbuck SD25 patrons want more accountability. Are there differences accounting for this wide range of purported funding gap amounts and “needs?” Absolutely. Educate us on the specifics. Explain why the SD25 supplemental levy plus plant facilities levy on a per-student cost is 98.2 percent higher than Bonneville; 39.5 percent higher than Idaho Falls; and 21.9 percent higher than Twin Falls.

Everyone has an opinion on school supplemental levies. My purpose is to advocate for the discussion and debate to move beyond the tired, repeated “talking points” to looking at real data comparisons. Let’s examine actual comparisons and ask “why” the differences? Have efficiencies we’re unaware of been utilized in other districts? What creates this vast range in district perceptions of the funding “gap/shortage?” Is there disparity in funding between districts? Since funding is currently based off support units converted from average daily attendance numbers, is attendance adversely affecting us? What other factors need to be considered? These are all reasonable questions to pose to SD25 and require them to answer.

There were approximately 36,733 registered voters eligible to vote on the supplemental levy in 2019. Early reports are that we’re off to a good start. People are waking up, becoming more involved, so I’m hopeful voter turnout significantly surpasses the 3,109 voters from 2019, and 2,897 from 2017.

Pocatello for Accountable Government Entities (P.A.G.E.) prepared some comparisons worth looking at on our Facebook page. Are there other factors to consider? Yes! We all need to take time to examine various datapoints, think more critically and ask tough questions of our government entities. It’s our civic duty. We shouldn’t make decisions without adequate data and requiring explanations for our questions. That’s how we ensure the best value for our tax dollars.

Please vote on Tuesday, March 9, and remind others to vote, too.

Heather Disselkoen is co-founder of Pocatello for Accountable Government Entities (P.A.G.E.).