Superintendents in East Idaho are questioning the intent of a lawmaker bent on prohibiting school districts and other government agencies from campaigning for ballot measures on the taxpayer dime.
“This isn’t anything new — there’s always been prohibition of this kind of thing,” said Idaho Falls School District superintendent George Boland. “So, I have to ask, is this just a solution looking for a problem?”
Last week, the House State Affairs Committee voted unanimously to introduce Rep. Jason Monks’ “Government Non-Interference in Elections Act,” which would prohibit school districts from using public dollars to affect elections on ballot measures.
School administrators say they already avoid publicly advocating for bond issues or levies, and that the Nampa Republican’s bill could strangle efforts to share basic election information with patrons. One superintendent seemed to question electioneering limits altogether.
“If I’m a mayor and believe that something is best for a city, and that thing is actually best for the city, then I got to go with what’s best,” said Ririe School District superintendent Chad Williams.
Williams said the Ririe School District still abides by “what the law says,” and pointed to a PowerPoint on his district’s webpage that avoids language lobbying for an upcoming bond.
But conservative groups and some taxpayers say Idaho school districts are far from innocent when it comes to using public funds to finagle election results.
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A recent opinion piece written by Idaho Freedom Foundation executive director Wayne Hoffman called out the use of “slick videos” and speeches lauding bond measures during school-sponsored events packed with patrons. The column riled several readers on Facebook.
“If the state of Idaho would meet the Constitutional obligation to fund public education, school districts would not have to have bonds and levies,” wrote reader Paul Stembridge.
But some side with Hoffman. East Idaho business owner Steve Hatton said he’s fed up with school districts and other local governments pushing to pass bonds.
Hatton pointed to the Bonneville School District’s recent $56 million bond measure for a new high school, which found its way to ballots four times before passing in 2015. At one point during the contentious campaign, city leaders in Ammon threw their support behind Bonneville’s bond measure — and strapped letters to city utility bills to do it.
The letter, written by Ammon mayor Dana Kirkham, tied the fate of the bond to the city’s future.
“Schools are often the reason families choose to purchase a home in a certain area,” Kirkham wrote. “They are important to health, growth and vitality in any city.”
Some citizens called for a refund of the $218.66 used to send the letters out, and at least one longtime bond opponent called for the mayor to resign. Ammon’s attorney justified the decision, casting it as public funds used to benefited the general public.
Hatton said: “I dont know how anybody can think it’s right.”
Still, East Idaho superintendents appear to stand united against Monks’ proposed measure.
“We can only hold four elections a year now,” said American Falls superintendent Ron Bolinger, “and then there’s the required supermajority to get a bond passed that makes it even more difficult.”
Boland cited Monks’ own acknowledgement before House State Committee Affairs members last week that most school administrators go to great lengths to avoid advocating for bond issues or levies.
“It seems to me that someone got upset about something and called their lawmaker,” Boland said.
Monks said he has heard anecdotal evidence of election “improprieties,” and pledged to discuss details at a full committee hearing.
House State Affairs’ vote sets the stage for such a hearing, at a later date.