Whatever other education issues the Idaho legislature tackles in the 2007 session, it must deal with replacing the schools maintenance and operations (M & O) funds that were removed from the property tax in the August special session called by Governor Risch. In that session, the legislature raised the sales tax by 20% (from 5% to 6%) to make up the difference in this large tax shift. The result was relief to property owners throughout the state.
However, it remains for the legislature to actually appropriate the money from the general fund and send it to the school districts. Veteran lawmakers say that determining what each school district receives cannot be based on what they would have received from local property taxes. The state must devise a method of assessing the actual budgets of each school district.
Apparently some of the smaller school districts, which must spend far more dollars per student than the larger districts, are already quite concerned about the amount they will receive from the legislature. They fear they will experience a drop in operating funds.
Legislators who actually do the math and track the state tax revenues say the sales tax increase was not really needed to give property tax relief, as there was already a large surplus in the general fund. In addition, the legislature has placed $100 million in an Education Stabilization Fund to prevent shortfalls in the future. Since there is a large surplus in the general fund already, letâ€™s hope the dollars raised by the sales tax increase are also placed in the Stabilization Fund.
By the way, some may be under the mistaken impression that M & O funds are earmarked for very specific needs. This is not true. Those M & O dollars may be spent for anything and everything from school buildings, teacher salaries, new carpet, additional school counselors, to textbooks, and employee bonuses, to name just a few items. What school district patron, or legislator, for that matter, can possibly keep track of it all?
The opportunity to make school districts more accountable for their spending may arrive as the legislature tackles the sticky issue of funding the school M & O. And possibly the issue of school district consolidation will reappear.