Fiscal Fiasco 

Boise schools avoid closure ... for now

If you want to gauge parental concern over the fate of their children's schools in Boise, just give Pete Radice a call and hope he isn't home.

When Radice's answering machine comes on, you'll hear the innocent-sounding voices of his children communicate a harsh reality being felt across the Boise school district these days. The kids say, "Sorry we can't get to the phone, we're too busy trying to save our schools."

For now, the hard work has paid off. Two months ago, Boise school district Superintendent Dr. Stan Olson announced that after an intense and lengthy lobbying effort by parents, a cost-saving plan to shut down four low-enrollment, but in some cases historic and beloved, schools would be put on hold for at least three to five years.

"It's off the table," said Vickie Simmons, deputy superintendent for the Boise school district. "But we can't promise it will never be considered again. That would be pretty dumb to do when you don't know what the revenue picture will look like down the road."

While the immediate concern of parents who like the idea of forever keeping their neighborhood schools has been alleviated, there's still an elephant in the room: Next year, the Boise school district will take in $179 million in revenue, while spending $184 million on operating costs.

What's more, the $5 million shortfall is likely to get larger each subsequent year, since a number of state taxing mechanisms which help fund education in Idaho are getting dismantled in favor of lowering taxes for big business.

"We have a governor who's going to be living in Simplot's old house, a billionaire's mansion, and meanwhile this state is 47th in the nation in education spending. What a contradiction," said Radice. "We as parents should have gone to the State Legislature and made our case a long time ago."

In recent years, the Legislature has made life easier for big businesses by granting various property tax exemptions. First, in 2003, a bill was passed allowing companies to exempt investments in personal property from their property taxes. By next year, in Ada County alone, the exemption will amount to more than $500 million, meaning a loss of $114 of state funding per every 20 students.

The so-called Micron Bill which was recently passed by the Legislature caps Micron's Boise property value at $800 million. The real taxable value is $1.5 billion. The $700 million difference equates to a $2.1 million loss to public schools, an additional $160 loss per 20 students.

"We understand that money at the state level is a limited resource, but at the same time we need to be cautious when we give property tax exemptions," said Nancy Landon, director of accounting for the Boise school district. "As companies and special interest groups get property tax legislation to go in their favor, it has an impact on schools statewide."

Adding to the dilemma of simultaneously keeping businesses and schools flush with funds, the state sales tax reversion is due this summer. Currently, sales tax is 6 percent, a 1 percent hike up from the traditional rate, which was enacted to balance the state budget. Starting July 1, sales tax reverts back to 5 percent. Landon says the cut will affect schools directly, since nearly half of the state budget, which relies heavily on sales tax, goes toward education.

What to do? For Rep. Nicole LeFavour, the solution-while not one that feels good-is clear as day: Raise taxes.

LeFavour said she'd like to see at least one of three taxing mechanisms be used to help matters. She would support an increase in income tax, keeping the sales tax at 6 percent or expanding the sales tax to include not only products but services, too.

"There's been a tendency of the Legislature to create a lot of exemptions that force us to meet budget demands with less," LeFavour said. "But meanwhile the cost of doing business for schools has gone up. You have to at least keep up with inflation and we have not been doing that."

Parents like Radice have another idea. They want the district to shift focus away from eventually asking voters to support a ballot measure that would sell bonds to pay for school renovations and repairs. Instead, they want the district to pass an operating levy, a usually temporary fix in which property taxes are increased and utilized for school operating costs.

"It's not a shiny new building I'm looking for," said Radice. "In tight times you have to do what's prudent."

The operating levy needed to raise $5 million would amount to a $38 property tax increase on every $150,000 of property value. Both the district and LeFavour are cold to that idea.

"If voters want to approve something like that, then that's great," said LeFavour. "But it's a tough time for another property tax increase. And property tax increases are always more burdensome for low-income folks. Income tax is more equitable."

Parents around the district have formulated a list of other ideas to reduce spending and increase revenue across the district. For cost-cutting, they suggest reducing the number of portable classrooms used across the district. Per square foot, portable classrooms are more costly to maintain than buildings-which is ironic, as they are most often used to increase space on cash-strapped, high-enrollment campuses.

The parents also suggest developing a marketing program to recapture the student market share now attending local private schools. Since the state pays districts per student, an influx of children could be profitable.

"They have some very good ideas that have a lot of merit," said Simmons. "We especially like the idea of marketing ourselves more and touting the programs we have."

Next month, district officials will present a preliminary budget for the 2005-06 school year to school board trustees. Simmons said the quick fix for now involves using the district's reserve funds to cover most of the budget gap. The district currently has $9.7 million in rainy day funds.

Simmons said there will be a reduction in the number of teachers-by roughly 20 or more-across the district. However, Simmons said there will be no teacher layoffs since the reduction can be met by natural attrition-retirements and resignations.

The Boise School District will hold a community wide meeting on April 28 to answer questions about the budget crisis. It will take place from 6 to 10 p.m. at the District Services Center, located at 8169 W. Victory Road.

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