HAILEY — Blaine County has a reputation for being home to wealthy Sun Valley and schools with specialty programs many Idaho communities only dream of affording.
But the school district will soon ask for money to help sustain programs state funding doesn’t cover like world languages for middle schoolers, engineering technology teachers in elementary schools, art, and music ensembles such as choir, band and string orchestra.
During the March election, the Blaine County School District will bring a brand new supplemental levy request to voters to help pay for student instruction. In exchange, it will ask for less money for school building and maintenance projects.
“Our community obviously expects incredible services for their kids, and they expect small class sizes,” Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes said.
It’s not unusual for school districts to seek supplemental levies. Across Idaho, 93 of 115 districts have one already.
“This is not unique to Blaine County,” Holmes said. “We’re joining a big club here.”
The Blaine County district has used a supplemental levy in the past, but not in more than a decade.
The vast majority of school districts use their supplemental levy to pay for basic operational expenses like keeping the lights on and replacing outdated textbooks instead of what might be seen as specialty offerings.
For the Twin Falls School District, the supplemental levy is often referred to as a “survival levy” and makes up nearly 10 percent of the general fund budget. District leaders say it’s not for specific niche programs.
“It’s not the frosting we’re trying to pay for,” Superintendent Brady Dickinson said.
In the Blaine County School District, though, some of the largest levy priorities are small class sizes and continuing programs that set the district apart from most other Idaho schools.
On Blaine County ballots during the March 13 election, the measure will require a simple majority to pass. If approved, it would reduce the existing plant facilities levy from nearly $6 million annually to $2.99 million annually for the next two years. It would also add a two-year supplemental levy for $2.99 million annually.
Overall, property taxes collected by the district would remain the same.
The new supplemental levy would help maintain offerings that exceed state requirements, including small class sizes, preschool, all-day kindergarten, athletics, art, drama, choir, band, orchestra, career technical education and world languages. It would also provide a small salary increase to help attract and retain employees, and fund strategic plan objectives such as outdoor education for middle school students.
The current 10-year plant facilities levy was passed in 2009, and at the time, the school district anticipated the need for a new elementary school. But enrollment didn’t grow as quickly as expected. The school district’s class size policy calls for 20 children in kindergarten through second grades, 25 children in third through fifth grades, and 30 children in middle and high school.
“We are blessed with small class sizes so we can work individually with students and help them out,” said Glenn Lindsley, a math teacher at Wood River High School in Hailey. It’s a luxury most other school districts don’t get.
Lindsley typically has about 20 students in each of his classes.
“Everywhere else I’ve ever taught, it’s been 30,” he said.
Lindsley has been an educator for 35 years, 12 of them in Blaine County. Before that, he taught in the Seattle area, Ohio and New York.
The school district has already made budget cuts. It started trimming its expenses a few years ago and over a two-year period, it cut $2.5 million from its general fund. Classroom teachers and staff have felt the effects, but not necessarily students, Holmes said.
“If the ballot measure doesn’t pass, kids will start to see it,” she said.
Where does the Blaine County School District get its money?
All Idaho school districts used to receive part of their money from local property tax revenue. But in 2006, state legislators changed the system to base funding on state income and sales taxes instead.
However, four resort-area districts — including Blaine County — collected more in property tax revenue than what they’d receive under the revised state system. As a result, they were exempted and a budget stabilization levy was created without voter approval.
The Blaine County district continues to receive property tax revenues based on 2006 valuations.
The general fund is 60 percent local dollars. “Our revenues have been relatively flat since 2007 when that stabilization levy went into place,” Holmes said.
‘We’ve reduced a lot’
Initially, the school district didn’t need all of the revenue it received through the budget stabilization levy. Unspent money was kept in reserves.
But the district has seen enrollment growth, inflation and rising expenses. “For a while,” Holmes said, “the district was spending some of those reserves to make ends meet.”
The school district hasn’t laid off teachers, she said. But it has cut job positions from its administrative office, including in finance, buildings and grounds, and technology. And there’s no longer an assistant superintendent.
“We’ve reduced a lot in those areas,” Holmes said.
The school district has also cut department and school budgets, meaning there’s less money for materials and supplies. It cut back on teacher training and tightened school bus routes. It used to allow community groups to use school buildings for free, but now charges a fee.
The school district has seen large cost increases for employee salaries and benefits, such as health insurance. Much of that is employees moving up the salary schedule as they gain education and years of experience.
“We’re looking at $1 million plus (each year) just to keep up with that alone,” Holmes said.
Jamie Harding, librarian at Ernest Hemingway STEAM School in Ketchum has been a teacher there for her entire 24-year career. Quite a few employees have been with the school district for 20 years or more, she said.
“While obviously that costs more, I think there’s a real value in teachers that dedicate their careers and stay in one district,” she said. Highly educated and experienced teachers benefit students in classrooms, she added.
Three years ago, the school district stopped hiring additional staff and reallocated employees among schools to meet needs.
“We started moving the teachers around to be where the kids were,” Holmes said, adding it’s something commonplace in many other school districts. “It’s not a reduction, but a change in culture.”
In the meantime, Blaine County’s student numbers are increasing 1 to 1.5 percent each year, she said. “Our enrollment has been slowly ticking up.”
If the ballot measure doesn’t pass in March, it could lead to tough decisions for schools — and possibly, sacrificing some programs.
“Buildings will have to make decisions,” Holmes said, “about which classes to no longer offer.”