At a time when the economic environment is forcing families to budget for gasoline and groceries while property taxes keep climbing, school districts would do well to focus on projects directly related to the education of children.
On November 7, 2023, 34 school districts will ask voters to approve bond questions totaling more than $1.2 billion across 50 counties in Iowa. Many districts claim the new debt will be revenue neutral from a taxpayer perspective, or only increase the property tax a little, but most Iowans want their taxes to go down, not stay the same or increase.
Half of these districts, 17, have overseen property tax increases of more than 40% in the last decade. At the same time, 15 of the 34 districts have experienced declines in enrollment over the same period. Only 10 have seen enrollment increase by double digits, mostly in the Des Moines metro area in Dallas and Polk Counties.
While some of the proposed projects are likely necessary in districts with increasing enrollment and/or aging facilities, many are not so obviously a wise decision for taxpayers given the current economic environment. For example, it is understandable that Adel-Desoto-Minburn Community School District (CSD) is proposing a bond to build a new high school and renovate its middle school, given an enrollment increase of nearly 44%. The same goes for Van Meter CSD, where enrollment has increased nearly 55%, potentially justifying $18 million to build new classroom additions and expanded parking.
In contrast, the Beaman-Conrad-Liscomb-Union-Whitten (BCLUW) School District has seen an enrollment decline exceeding 20% over the last decade, yet is asking voters to fund additions to the elementary and high school buildings. Easton Valley CSD wants to build a new athletic fieldhouse despite a 10-year decline of over 16%.
Some districts are returning to voters asking for more money mere months after a March 7 election that included bond questions. The Irwin-Kirkman-Manilla-Manning (IKM-Manning) CSD won a bond approval in March but now is back for more despite a 5.8% enrollment decrease over the last decade. Others, including Durant CSD, North Tama CSD, West Sioux CSD, and Clarinda CSD, lost their bond requests but are trying the same questions again, as detailed in the following table.
The nature of each project is also important to consider. Especially in an economic environment forcing families to budget for gasoline and groceries while property taxes keep climbing, school districts would do well to focus on projects directly related to the education of children. While sports are a valuable component of children’s educational experience, their value is worth examining when measured against adequate classroom space or essentials like functioning HVAC, electrical, and plumbing systems.
Nonetheless, 14 of the bond questions entail building or enhancing athletic facilities. These projects range from new baseball and softball complexes to tennis and pickleball courts to expansion of wrestling practice rooms. New facilities are on the ballot for an indoor batting/hitting area, a swimming pool, and a new concession/ticket booth, among others. These may be nice amenities to have, but at a time of high interest rates and declining enrollment are they reasonable to put on the back of the taxpayers?
For worthwhile projects, communities can always look to other sources of funding than bonds. Not only do they have property taxes to pay for infrastructure, but they also receive a penny of every dollar subject to the sales tax through the Secure and Advanced Vision for Education (SAVE) fund. In fiscal year 2022, total SAVE expenditures across the state amounted to more than $880 million. These sources are in addition to Physical Plant and Equipment Levies (PPELs) school boards impose.
As the facts highlighted above illustrate, voters in these districts must educate themselves. School finance is difficult even for those who work in the public policy world, which is why the Iowans for Tax Relief Local webpage has been enhanced with new information to help voters make informed decisions when it comes to local government spending.
Visit itrlocal.org to explore your community’s spending, debt, and property tax collections.