RATHDRUM ó A state legislator and the Lakeland Joint School District have joined forces on clarifying the taxpayer impact if the district's proposed $70.9 million bond on the Aug. 27 ballot passes. A number of patrons have voiced concerns that the amount is confusing.
Lakeland Finance Director Brian Wallace said a new law that specifies how districts are required to explain the taxpayer impact in the ballot language has led to the murky waters.
The ballot states the estimated average annual cost to taxpayers is $147 per $100,000 of taxable assessed value per year, but the district also stated on its website that the estimated impact is $41 per $100,000 of taxable assessed value.
"We knew that this would cause confusion," Wallace said.
Wallace said the new law requires school districts to calculate the impact of the bond as of "today."
"The limitation with this is that the law does not allow us to take into account future factors that impact our tax rate," said Wallace, referring to factors like growth in the tax base due to new construction and debt retirement.
Wallace said that, for example, the district has bonds that will be paid off in 2023 and 2025.
"The new bonds will be structured to have lower payments at the start and then increase when the old bonds retire," he said. "This allows us to flatten the impact of the new bonds over time. The $147 per $100,000 calculation assumes that these older bonds and taxable value stay the same for 20 years and that is not the case."
Wallace said the district included the $41 estimate on its website because it believes that will be the true impact to taxpayers, not because it is trying to be shifty with numbers to increase its chances of the bond passing, as some critics believe.
The district also explained the differential on its website on a "frequently asked questions" sheet.
The confusion also captured the attention of Rep. Tony Wisniewski, R-Post Falls, who met with Wallace on Thursday and Friday to clarify the taxpayer impact.
Wallace said there's interest from school finance directors statewide for ballot language reform in light of the confusion.
Kootenai County Clerk Jim Brannon said the Elections Office has fielded a few calls from voters over the taxpayer impact numbers.
"The ballot language is correct," said Brannon, adding that the law stipulates how the amount should be worded. "That's what people will be voting on. It's not my job to comment on what is on the school district's website."
Larry Spencer, a civic watchdog, said he believes the confusion should cause cancellation of the bond measure because early and absentee voting is underway.
"In my opinion, what they did was dishonest," Spencer said. "They're playing games with numbers, hoping no one looks into it and it's appalling. There are some legislators who want to make it a crime."
Spencer said he understands that new construction will drive the cost of the bond down for taxpayers, but not enough to make up the difference in the numbers.
"If this was an advertisement for a sale, it would violate all kinds of truth-in-advertising laws," he said.
Spencer said he believes ballot language law should also be changed so voters can easily understand what is being proposed.
According to the Kootenai County Elections Office, 767 absentee ballots for the proposal were mailed. As of Thursday afternoon, 527 had been returned.
The deadline to request an absentee ballot has passed.
Early voting started on Monday and, as of Thursday afternoon, 18 had voted in person at the Elections Office, 1808 N. Third St., Coeur díAlene.
Early voting continues from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday through Aug. 23. Voting at the individual polls on election day will be from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The bond would fund a new school for Lakeland and Mountain View high schools on district-owned property next to the Kootenai Technical Education Campus (KTEC) on Lancaster Road, along with improvements to other schools.
A super-majority approval vote (66 2/3 percent) is needed for the bond measure to pass.
Six classrooms and an auxiliary gym would be added to Timberlake Junior High to accommodate the sixth grade, while a new auditorium, improvements to the commons and athletic facility upgrades are planned for Timberlake High.
Wallace said drivers for the proposal determined by the Long-Range Facility Planning Committee include Lakeland Junior High's poor condition, population and student growth and increased traffic on Highway 41 that has drawn pedestrian safety concerns.
"The committee concluded that minor upgrades and repair would not be a good use of taxpayer dollars," he said.
Lakeland Junior High, which would become Lakeland Middle School while taking on sixth-graders to alleviate growth pressures at the elementary schools, would move across Highway 41 to the current Lakeland High. The building's upgrades would include a single point of entry to increase security, and renovating the commons.
Moving Lakeland High would reduce traffic congestion at the Highway 41-Highway 53 interchange, Wallace said.
Sixth-graders would also move into Timberlake Junior High to relieve elementary schools in the northern part of the district.
Wallace said that by 2025, the district's enrollment is predicted to reach 5,376. It's 4,413 now. He said the committee determined that the district's future building costs will increase if the needs are not acted on now.
The last bond that Lakeland voters approved was in 2005. That paid for construction of Twin Lakes Elementary.