Divided and disenchanted: Why a rural Idaho community refuses to fund education

GRANGEVILLE — Over and over again, a rural North Idaho school district has asked local taxpayers to chip in for local education.

And they’ve repeatedly said no — most recently on Nov. 7, marking the fourth consecutive denial of a Mountain View School District levy ask in as many years. 

Nonetheless, trustees are going to try again in May. This time they’ll request a two-year, $6.2 million levy instead of a one-year, $3.1 million levy. 

They keep asking because the alternatives are bleak, according to Carly Behler, the district’s comptroller. If the next measure doesn’t pass, trustees will consider closing a school to cut costs — a possibility that many community members oppose.

If passed, the levy would fund a gamut of district needs, including: utilities, substitutes, support staff, maintenance and repairs, athletics, transportation, employee benefits, insurance, instructional materials, professional services, technology, custodial supplies, and special education contracted services.

At the board’s last meeting, patrons — including some students — advocated to keep all five of its schools open. Community members worry that Clearwater Valley High would be on the chopping block, but Superintendent Kim Spacek said trustees haven’t decided whether to close a school, or which one. Those conversations will come if voters deny the levy in May. 

Mountain View School District schools: Grangeville Elementary/Middle; Grangeville High; Clearwater Valley High; Clearwater Valley Elementary; Elk City School

“There were a lot of passionate comments,” Behler said. “They were saying how important the school is and how it creates the community. If you take that away, it really impacts whether people would want to move or even live there.”

But so far, that public sentiment hasn’t translated to financial support. 

The repeated levy failures are unusual, as the measures usually pass. In the past five years, voters have approved 94% of supplemental levies (which require simple majority approval) in Idaho. 

Time Period Amount of supplemental levy asks statewide Supplemental levies passed / pass rate
2019 – 2023 277 259 / 94%

The reasons for the community pushback are many, according to school officials: a divided community; family budgets crunched by increasing property values and taxes; rebellion against a Legislature that relies on local communities to close education funding gaps; distrust of public education; and a growing homeschool movement.  

It’s a “perfect storm,” said Amanda Bush, the district’s special education coordinator, describing an extreme case of what can happen when voters become disenfranchised with school districts and/or government. 

“We are just an example of how all of those things can come together and cause real problems for a school district,” she said.

She said she doesn’t “blame anybody” or fault their reasons. There are problems with school funding, but the answer is not to stop financially supporting local education, she said. 

“I’m frustrated that we continue to struggle to just exist,” she said. “For the benefit of our students, I want our schools to be healthy, safe places for kids.”

“I’m frustrated that we continue to struggle to just exist.” — Amanda Bush, special education coordinator, Mountain View School District.

A community divided — and disenchanted

Bush said she’s seeing more and more students disenroll to become homeschooled, reflecting a national trend. 

“There’s a shift against public education in rural, and in really conservative communities, across the country,” she said. “There’s a huge increase in homeschooling that’s happening here.”

The district primarily serves two communities — Grangeville and Clearwater Valley — and each has its own elementary and high school. While the communities are about 28 miles apart — a winding, 45-minute drive — more than distance divides them. Clearwater Valley has a strong homeschooled population, to the point where they feel “they don’t need our school system,” Bush said.  

Mountain View School District by the numbers:
Total students: 1,169
Grangeville students: 838
Clearwater Valley/Elk City students: 331

In the last election, Clearwater Valley votes sank the levy, Bush said. Clearwater Valley is also more rural, has less industry, and fewer job opportunities. 

Part of what drives the rancor about levies is a rivalry between Grangeville and Clearwater Valley. There have been increasing calls to separate Mountain View School District into two, smaller districts. 

“The communities are so divided that they’re determined to keep failing levies because they don’t want to support the other,” Behler said. 

Local voters also feel disenfranchised by the dependence on local taxpayers to fund education. 

“There’s a strong sense in our community that property taxes supporting schools are unconstitutional,” she said. “(Patrons) want the (Idaho Department of Education) to fund education 100%.”

At the same time, taxpayers feel the squeeze of increasing property values and the increasing property taxes that go with them.

A new superintendent is hopeful for a levy success story

Spacek, new to the district this year, noted that other districts in the area have passed levies, and often. 

“They must have a good relationship with their community and provide the type of education their community wants,” he said. “And so that’s a challenge for Mountain View.”

The district and its communities have questions to answer, he said, like whether forming two districts is a solution worth pursuing, and how to best prepare students for life after high school. 

But he saw the 48% levy approval at the last election as progress.

“That’s probably the closest it’s been to passing for a long time,” he said. “To me, that’s a positive because there’s a recognition that we need to do something for schools.”

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro

Reporter Carly Flandro works in EdNews’ East Idaho bureau. A former high school English teacher, she writes about teaching, learning, diversity, and equity. You can follow Flandro on Twitter @idahoedcarly and send her news tips at [email protected].

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