Sitting on the ground in an overgrown forest outside of Council, Idaho, a couple of weeks ago, logger Mark Mahon strayed from the main subject of conversation. He was talking about how logging companies like the one he owns with his parents and brother have fared in recent years, but he began talking about the local school.
“The school virtually is broke,” he said. “They’re relying on grants and donations and fundraising constantly just to provide a basic education.”
There are 240 students, K-12, in the Council School District. Data provided by the state Department of Education show state funding for the district has decreased by more than 25 percent in the past four years.
It’s a situation similar to the one faced in Rockland, in southeast Idaho, and in other rural districts across the state. With diminished state support, school districts are forced to rely more on grants and local volunteerism, and also on property tax levies. In rural districts with low property values, raising money through levies is no easy task. Such districts have fewer people and less local wealth to call on when marshalling needed financial support.
“The inequity between districts is becoming very, very noticeable,” said Council School District superintendent Murray Dalgleish. “When you’re talking about taxing efforts — in these rural areas that don’t have vacation homes or a whole lot of industry, you just don’t have enough people to spread it over to make it fair.”
In small districts like the one in Council, volunteerism and in-kind donations are becoming all the more important. A few years ago, the high school had to shut down its shop program. For the last year, Council residents have worked to reverse that.
“Last spring, I led a grassroots group of ranchers, loggers, tradesman, businessmen,” Mahon recalled. A school patron donated ten acres of timber. Mahon and another logger teamed up to harvest it. “We harvested 19 truckloads of logs for free, and the money was donated to the shop-building project,” Mahon said. “Ranchers donated values of steers. Tradesman have donated labor for the plumbing, the electrical, the construction and carpentry work.”
This spring, local residents voted in favor of a levy to pay for a shop teacher’s salary. The program will start up again this fall.
“It’s been an effort on everybody’s part,” superintendent Dalgleish said. “It’s not unlike a barn-raising.”
Dalgleish is proud of the local community, but he also doesn’t believe this is a sustainable way of funding small and rural schools. “Educators are a certain breed,” he said. “We will scrimp and save and find volunteers to get things done. And at the end of the day, the Legislature will look at it and say, ‘Well, you can do it.’ But you can only do that so many times. You can only drop the bucket in the well so many times.”
This spring, the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy released a study of school funding in Idaho over the past 30 years. The study identified a decrease in state support for public schools beginning about a decade ago. It also found an increasing reliance on unequalized property tax levies — that is, levies that are not adjusted to compensate for the disparities in wealth across Idaho’s 115 school districts — to support Idaho schools.