Fewer students creates need for higher levy ?

Some of my critics claim that I’ve never seen a school levy that I didn’t like.

I suspect they are right. 

Education is central to every child’s right to become the person they aspire to be. It is the foundation of an innovative and growing economy. And it is vital to the problem solving that keeps communities healthy.  

And it gets more complex–and more expensive–as technology advances, jobs become more varied, and families get smaller and members busier. .  

Yet, I was both surprised and worried to see that the Caldwell School District was asking voters to approve a supplemental levy $1.6 million higher than 2018’s because enrollment was decreasing. 

Now, the Caldwell School District has a record of frugality and of strong support from the voters, but the increase worried me enough that I took some questions to April Burton, chief financial officer for the District.

Why is Caldwell’s enrollment decreasing?  School enrollment dropped 285 this year as two new charter schools opened with 572 students. Elevate Academy, a career/technical school in Caldwell, enrolled 314 students, and Forge International in Middleton, 258. Nampa and several other schools, including half the area’s charters, also lost enrollment. 

In 2020-21 Elevate Academy plans to enroll an additional 124 students, and Mosaics Public School, a new charter serving K-4th grade students, plans to enroll 300. Those 424 students will come from schools throughout the area, but Caldwell is preparing for a loss of as many as 378 students.  

All three of these new schools were chartered by the state, not the school district. 

Caldwell has three other charter schools enrolling over 1500 students, but their enrollment has been fairly steady since 2011.  

Why does an enrollment decrease create a need for a larger supplemental levy? Idaho’s state government currently provides approximately $100,000 for ‘classrooms units’ of varying sizes depending on grade level, school size, and special needs. Caldwell figures that losing 378 students next year would cut its state funding by $1.9 million.  

Expenses won’t go down nearly that much.  

Burton provided a ‘for instance.”  Mosaics plans to add 60 2nd graders. If 30 came from Sacajawea and 30 from Wilson, Caldwell could cut two teachers. If, however, each of Caldwell’s six elementary schools lost 10 students, the difference would be only one or two students per classroom. Costs would not go down.  

Caldwell cannot eliminate classes or teachers until they know what grades and courses lose students.  “This levy is only for two years,” Burton said. “We need that time to study the changes and make cuts. Our request in 2022 may be very different.”  

How can Caldwell increase the supplemental levy without increasing the tax rate? The district is paying off some major bonds and will be diverting that money to the supplemental levy.   

Increasing property values made it possible for the school district to lower the taxing rate for the 2018 levy from $4.19 to $3.66 per thousand dollars of evaluation. The district will keep the lower rate for this levy.   

If property values continue to rise, that $3.66 figure could actually go down.  

Can Caldwell continue to attract students as charter schools proliferate?  Students in public schools work side by side with students of different cultures, abilities, and income levels. Smaller districts can’t offer that. 

Levy funds are vital in  offering the variety of programs that interest Caldwell’s students, programs ranging from AP and STEM classes to music, drama and sports.   

I may still meet a levy I don’t like one day, but now isn’t the time.    

Published by Judy Ferro

Judy Ferro is communication director for the 2C Dems and a columnist for the Idaho Press.

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