Possibly no group of Idahoans has made a greater local financial commitment toward their public schools than the people of Lewiston.
More than $1 of every $3 the district spends comes from local property taxpayers.
And it shows.
At 92.8%, Lewiston High School’s graduation rate is sixth among Idaho’s 21 largest high schools — and second-best only to Coeur d’Alene by a sliver among northern Idaho’s largest high schools.
It also has a greater academic rigor. To graduate from LHS, a student must acquire 56 credits — 10 more than the state expects.
Lewiston’s youngest students are making genuine progress toward becoming proficient readers. On the Idaho Reading Indicator, 76% of Lewiston’s kindergartners tested at grade level at midterm — vs. the state’s 63% average.
Its first graders scored 70% vs. 61% for the state.
At second grade, Lewiston scored 73% vs. 63% for the state.
And third graders came in at 71% vs. 61% for the state.
With the latest addition of welding, Lewiston now offers 10 career technical education programs. But the equipment, facilities and need for small class sizes is expensive. The program costs more than $1 million a year.
Operating in a competitive job market, Lewiston is able to compete for veteran teachers. With an infusion of supplemental levy funds, the district has found a way to compensate teachers with more than five years of classroom experience.
State money provides a floor of 240 teachers in Lewiston. With the money from the levy, Lewiston can hire another 27.
Much the same thing occurs with classified staff — including instructional aides. State funding would provide 88 of those positions. Lewiston is able to pay for 212, assuming it can find them in this competitive job market.
What this means is smaller class sizes and more individual attention for your child.
It translates into assigning a reading specialist and three instructional assistants in each of the seven elementary schools.
It cements stability and relationships with students by placing a counselor at each of the seven elementary schools, two at the middle schools, five at the high school and one at Tammany High School.
All of which occurs in a state that is constitutionally obligated to provide “a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools” but falls short.
In Lewiston’s case, the gap between “a general, uniform and thorough” education and what the state provides is about $20 million — or 36% of the school district’s $55 million general fund budget.
The difference — which has widened in the years since Idaho lawmakers cut school funding during the Great Recession — is made up by the district’s supplemental levy.
That levy is up for renewal Tuesday. Passage requires a simple majority.
Under normal circumstances, that should be an afterthought. This is not a tax increase. It’s simply a renewal. Usually, the measure passes easily. Five years ago, it cleared with 81.2%. In 2013, it got 85.5%.
But the environment this year is anything but normal.
A red-hot housing market has pushed up property tax assessments on homes. The same Legislature that has funded schools at the nation’s lowest level for per pupil expenditures has also neglected the one tax break shielding homeowners from real estate inflation, the Homestead Exemption.
All of which adds up to tax increases as high as 40% for some Lewiston residents.
Only a saint would not consider his own pocketbook with a levy that makes up about a quarter of his taxes.
Take the owner of a home valued at $350,000, for instance. He’s taxed $3,364. The supplemental school levy is responsible for about $790 of that.
The school board lowered its levy by 6% — a reduction of $1.2 million in revenue — saving that homeowner $50. If the Idaho Legislature keeps its word about investing $330 million in public education next year, he could save even more. Lewiston would need less money from local taxpayers if it gets more from the state.
But indulging the impulse to cut your taxes at the polls Tuesday would transform Lewiston from an above-average but hardly wealthy school district into a bare-bones operation.
Cut 36% of its budget and you could expect:
Losing the equivalent of the entire staff of Jenifer or Sacajawea middle schools — about 151 teachers and classified employees.
At least some of the career technical education programs, the crown jewel of the new Lewiston High School, would be scaled back.
There would be fewer counselors to help teachers and students cope with the aftermath of the distance learning and social isolation they suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It would mean losing about half of the specialists who help early learners acquire reading skills.
Class sizes would expand and attention to individual students would undoubtedly diminish.
It is more than likely that Lewiston would lose at least some of its talented and experienced teachers to districts across the Washington border or private sector jobs willing to pay more.
Isn’t it obvious what comes next?
Some kids will fall through the cracks.
Maybe they don’t acquire the ability to read.
Without a robust variety of courses to hold their interests, more of them drift away before graduating from high school.
And the investment this community made six years ago toward building a modern high school will be compromised.
Tuesday is a defining moment for Lewiston.
Does it remain the kind of community that supports kids or not?
Say it does. Vote yes. — M.T.