Wednesday, September 8, 2004

Facts and figures detail school district budget

Guest opinion by DR. JAMES L. LEWIS

Dr. James L. Lewis is the Blaine County School District superintendent, and Mike Chatterton is the business manager.

Recently the Blaine County School District has come under question concerning its current school year budget. This is certainly understandable considering the rapid rise in property valuations and the increased costs of living experienced by all of us in the Wood River Valley.

We would first like to give you some background on the taxing methods used in the State of Idaho. Since Idaho is a non-disclosure state, it is impossible for the local taxing agency to obtain accurate information of the exact selling prices of our local real estate. Therefore, at the end of the taxing year, the state adjusts the local valuations by collecting whatever random sale price information they can. Last year, there was no adjustment in the state valuation process. Because of this, last year was the first year in recent memory that the Blaine County School District was even close to its maximum taxing capacity. In fact, the Blaine County School District has consistently left large amounts of tax capacity on the table to try to help local taxpayers and address their concerns. Please refer to the table below which depicts the amounts each year and totals $11,583,898 returned to the taxpayers over the last 10 years:

2004-05 $1,924,342
2003-04 $00.00
2002-03 $1,447,474
2001-02 $1,351,604
2000-01 $444,102
1999-00 $1,281,723
1998-99 $1,914,212
1997-98 $1,626,571
1996-97 $830,798
1995-96 $763,072

In addition, the School District enacted a hiring freeze last year from teaching positions, to maintenance, to classroom paraprofessionals. This created average class loads well above the 20-22 students per class that has long been a standard for Blaine County Schools. Likewise, the School District reached an agreement with the Teachers? Association to hold salary increases to a tight 2 to 3 percent. This is compared to an average 4 percent over the last 10-year period.

Even though there is a great concern regarding property valuation increases this year, it is actually an adjustment for the lack of an adjustment last year. No one can be blamed for this. When decisions are made on sketchy data, it is a tough guessing game for both the county and the state. To affirm that the School District has not changed its position of trust with the taxpayers, the recent double digit increases in valuation allows the School District to return to the practice of leaving taxable dollars in the taxpayers? pocket. This year, that should be approximately $1.9 million.

The higher than usual increase in our budget this year is mainly attributable to two factors: fulfilling our mission to the patrons of restoring class sizes and support staff to the levels of 2002; and the second reason is one that most of you should be keenly aware of. As you know, we are in a building program that is primarily supported by the Plant Facilities Levy passed in May, 2000. Each time you read in the newspaper that the School District has been asked or mandated to build or add any item outside of the original intended facility budget, that must come from yearly management and operational budgets. Every annexation fee, not in existence at the time of passage of the levy, every berm, every extra tree, curbs, sidewalks, widening of access roads, sound barrier walls, additional route of ingress and/or egress, and embroidery crosswalks, to name a few, all must come from the yearly management and operational budgets. I hope you can understand why we fight so adamantly against additional construction expenses when it is your dollars that we are trying to protect and preserve.

Finally, we would like to make sure you do realize that the Blaine County School District budget is largely (85 percent) determined by personnel expenses. We are a people business, and these people need to be able to afford to live in this valley just the same as every other resident. Each year we must try to keep our salary schedule competitive enough to attract the quality of teachers we currently have in our schools. Just to make sure you understand that we have not wasted or squandered your tax dollars, please refer to the following charts, which depict property tax levies in other Idaho communities:

Fiscal Year 2002-2003
County Property Tax

Shoshone $824.13
Boise $813.76
Idaho Falls $803.13
Pocatello $766.01
Kimberly $685.35
Meridian $653.51
Cassia County $644.44
Richfield $567.51
Camas County $506.12
Blaine $401.85
Cost per $100,000

Annual Levy Amounts Per $100,000 Of Assessed Value

Fiscal Fiscal Fiscal Fiscal Fiscal
Year Year Year Year Year
00-01 01-02 02-03 03-04 04-05

General Fund Levies
$337.39 $329.10 $311.82 $331.04 $309.12

Bond/Interest Levy
$24.05 $22.87 $28.36 $27.96 $22.68

School Plant Facilities Levy
$79.96 $71.73 $61.66 $58.89 $50.02

Total Levy Cost per $100,000 Assessed
$441.41 $423.70 $401.85 $417.89 $381.81

* Fiscal Year 2004-2005 are estimated levy amounts

Since School District levies are set on a dollar amount, any increase in market value does not increase the School District?s budget. Yes, our budget increase was more this year than in previous years because it was a two-year adjustment with additional expenses from the building program. Even with that, we are proud to say that we have regained our cushion that we have always been proud to return to the taxpayers of Blaine County and still offer the highest quality of education to the patrons of Blaine County.

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