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State of Our Schools Part 2

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Where's the money?

Part II- Where's the Money?

If you’re a parent, or a taxpayer in the community, it’s hard to think of schools without thinking of students. But when it comes to funding for education, at least in Idaho, students go by the wayside and A.D.A. takes their place.

What is A.D.A.? It’s average daily attendance, and it’s a big part of the formula that drives funding for schools.

Think of it this way. There are 25 students in the math class, and they’re all required to complete the worksheet questions at the end of chapter five as homework at the end of the day. But every other day in that class four students are absent and another student stays home half of the time. The ADA for that math class is 22.5 students and, in a very simplistic representation of a very complex issue, that’s the amount of books provided to that class – 22.5. Now your Johnny has a homework assignment and there aren’t enough books to go around.

Like I said, simplistic, but A.D.A. is the bane of business managers everywhere. “If they funded us on students, we wouldn’t have to run a supplemental levy,” said Debra Schaper, business manager for West Bonner County School District. “Still, there’s only a certain amount of money to go around.”

Montana doesn’t make the ADA mistake. Funding for schools in Montana is based on a per-student entitlement called ANB (average number belonging). Montana districts count their enrollment, not which students are present, on two count dates in the fall and the spring to determine their ANB.

Throughout the United States, funding for schools is provided from three very simple sources: local support via property tax; state support via income, sales and other taxes; and federal support through programs like Title I, Vocational Education and Free and Reduced Lunch. Nationwide, in 1998-99 schools received 48.7% of their monies from the state, 44.2% from their local communities and just 7.1% from the federal government. And those dollars add up to an average of $8830 we spend per child each year for their education. Of course, in Idaho, that’s per pupil based on A.D.A., not per real child.

Locally, those percentages are a little different. In Idaho, the state provided 55.96% of funding plus almost 28% of their dollars from local sources- regular property taxes plus supplemental and other levies. The feds held tight to their average, providing 7.2% and a whopping 8.9% came from “other” sources. The average expenditure per ADA student is $6906, 22% lower than the average.

Over in Montana, where a committee has been gathering input throughout the state on changes needed in their funding formula, the state provision in the next legislative session will be 60% of the total, with the bulk of that money coming from a 95 mil property tax.  Supplementing that are revenues derived from school trust lands. Other than the small percentage of federal funding, the remaining Montana revenue base for schools comes from flat taxes on motor and recreational vehicles and production taxes on coal, oil and gas.

At the local level, those funding amounts translate to an expenditure of $6384 per pupil (ADA) in West Bonner County, placing them at #72 out of the 113 school districts in Idaho. Lake Pend Oreille District, at #64, spends $6657 per pupil and Boundary County is at #57, spending $6736 per pupil. All three districts spend less, on average, than districts in the state of Idaho.

In Montana, where they never seemed to jump on the consolidation bandwagon, schools operate as separate districts - there are more than nine of them just in the western end of Sanders County. The average spending per pupil in the state, however, is $6768.

According to a letter from Montana Superintendent of Education Linda McCulloch, funding for schools in the Big Sky State has, over the years, “shift(ed) the burden to the local property taxpayers.” Changes proposed to the Governor in December include the creation of a countywide levy for the local property tax portion of the school budgets of all districts in a county, instead of the separate levies in the current situation. “Such a system would reduce the variation in how much taxpayers pay depending on which school district they reside in within a county,” she wrote.

And according to this committee, that same funding process that focuses on real kids in the “average number belonging” process creates problems for schools where enrollment is declining. “Declining enrollments can put severe pressure on school budgets when the costs of providing an education do not decrease at the same time as declines in enrollment,” McCulloch said. “Many districts are faced with cutting needed programs while their costs continue to rise.” The proposals suggest cushioning the impact of lower enrollments by using a three-year average of enrollment numbers.

Several years ago, Idaho also changed its funding formula for schools, and adopted a process called equalization. In theory, wealthier school districts could afford to provide a greater share of school funding than poorer districts, so the funding formula was “equalized”- wealthier districts receive less money. In practice, the formula bases its perception of a district’s wealth on property value instead of on more objective criteria, like personal income.

According to figures for December 31, 1999, property values for West Bonner County School District were $539,050; Boundary County came in with $557,453, and property in the Lake Pend Oreille School District was valued at almost $2.025 billion dollars. The numbers are simple, but understanding how they effect state funding is vastly more complicated.

“Idaho takes the entire pool of dollars available for education,” explained the state education department’s Chief Financial Officer Timothy Hill, “and we take out of that pool the money needed to fund salaries. With what’s left, we determine the level of support per unit.” He went on to explain equalization with an analogy; District A is entitled to $1 million dollars in support, and they can easily raise half of that amount from property tax based on their assessed market value. So the state’s share of the district’s funding is $500,000. 

Units, by the way, are the second funding step after ADA (or maybe the first). Remote and rural schools, alternative high schools and the different grade levels each generate a different “unit” per student- um, per ADA.

Montana sought to equalize the property tax burden as well, but in so doing managed to completely remove local control from the school funding process. In Montana, districts are guaranteed a minimum “base support” from the state. They’re also limited to a maximum dollar support. No matter how committed a particular community might be to educating their young, they’re not allowed to provide more money than the maximum allowed by the state.

Other Idaho state support includes special funds like the Lottery, and forest funds. Idaho allowed for a state lottery over ten years ago, with half of all money generated earmarked for education. Lottery dollars, by law, can only be spent for Capital Assets – physical, tangible items like desks, books and buildings.

Forest funds, again in theory, help to make up the difference in dollars lost in property tax revenue in areas where both federal and state government owns much of the land.

Support from the federal government comes equally to districts in Montana and Idaho for programs like Free and Reduced Lunch and Title 1. Many of these programs are based on the income-level of the families within the district or school. The two states are also equal when it comes to the level of complexity for their school funding process; even Idaho’s Hill admitted that there’s “no easy way to explain” how the state funds its schools.

In Montana, of course, that might change with the new proposals coming this year, though the proposals as written seem to make the process more complex still. But as McCulloch wrote in her announcement of the reform process, “Providing a quality education for our children is tied directly to building a healthy Montana economy.” She could say the same for Idaho, no matter how you fund it.

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Landon Otis

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education, Lake Pend Oreille School District, Bonner County, Sanders County, funding, West Bonner County School District, Boundary County School District

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