POCATELLO — In the aftermath of last April’s disastrous fire — one that charred a significant chunk of Highland High School and displaced students — Pocatello/Chubbuck trustees turned to taxpayers to rebuild and improve what was left of the 1960s-era school.
Voters said “no” on Tuesday — denying a $45 million bond that would have improved Highland and upgraded the gym facilities at a second school, Century High School.
For Travis Bell, Highland’s assistant principal and athletic director, waking up to that news Wednesday morning was devastating.
“Today was every bit as disheartening as April 21,” he said.
District leaders reflected on the loss at a special board meeting Wednesday, citing misinformation and distrust as hurdles. And they considered next steps — including potentially rerunning the bond in May — but haven’t made any decisions yet.
Bond critics, including a newly elected trustee, cited a lack of transparency about the measure and confusion about the insurance payout.
Another struggle for trustees is that bonds in Idaho are more likely to fail than succeed — due in part to Idaho’s 66.67% supermajority approval requirement, one of the country’s most stringent.
As Jonathan Balls, Pocatello-Chubbuck’s director of business operations, put it — it’s one of the only elections where a measure can have majority support and still lose. In the district’s case, about 56% of voters supported the bond, but it wasn’t enough.
So trustees were left to ask: If a catastrophe like a fire isn’t enough to convince a supermajority of taxpayers to pitch in for school upgrades, what will?
They ruminated over the loss, determining that misinformation spread online and a sense of distrust toward the school district drove the bond’s failure.
It baffled longtime trustee and board chair Jim Facer, who was just reelected.
“I just don’t understand why people don’t trust the school district,” he said. “The school district’s done fabulous things with their money and been very responsible with it.”
He cited all the facilities progress the district has made without putting a bond on the ballot, including an addition to Pocatello High, building the alternative New Horizons Center and rebuilding Alameda Middle.
A just-elected trustee candidate and local watchdog group criticized the bond effort
Pocatello’s bond faced a number of public critiques, including from a local watchdog group and from Raymond Knoff, a trustee candidate who went on to win the election and will join Pocatello’s board in January.
Both entities felt the school district was not being transparent in its communications about the bond, partly because of how district leaders communicated about a property tax relief bill’s impacts.
Pocatello leaders characterized the bond as having “net zero impact” because the bill would offset costs. But the watchdog group Pocatello for Accountable Government Entities told the Idaho State Journal that messaging was misleading, and didn’t make clear that the bond’s failure would mean a big property tax cut.
And Knoff told the Journal that the property tax relief bill only runs through 2026, while the bond would cover a 15-year period.
“There is no guarantee that there will be future budget surpluses beyond that point,” he said.
Knoff, who has a history of opposing school funding measures, also questioned the need for a bigger school, pointing out that the district’s student population has “held steady or slightly declined over the last 13 years.”
“I believe we should use the insurance money we collect to rebuild the areas damaged by the fire at Highland High School and take the tax breaks, which are sorely needed in this time of rising property assessments, increasing local taxes, and worsening inflation,” he told the Journal.
Bond critics also cited confusion about the insurance payout — how much would be made available and what it would cover.
District leaders on Wednesday said the insurance would only pay for an exact rebuild of Highland as it was — down to the dimensions and original materials. But they wanted to seize on this opportunity to upgrade the 60-year-old school, and to plan ahead for growth.
“We were going to get a brand new school … not a 1963 school,” Bell said, pointing out that needs have changed significantly since Highland was built. “We didn’t used to have girls’ basketball in 1960. We didn’t have freshmen … Things have changed … and we want to be able to give kids the best opportunity we possibly can.”
Looking forward: Trustees consider rerunning the bond in May
Now, with Highland students eating lunch in hallways, common areas, and classrooms, and traveling across town for classes, leaders are considering next steps.
The options on the table:
- Running a bond again in May.
- Running two smaller bonds.
- Running the bond without improving gym facilities at Century High. Some community members thought the bond should have just been for Highland, but trustees felt adding Century would galvanize more community support. Plus, it’s been a major item on the district’s to-do list for years.
- Completing upgrades incrementally, rather than all at once.
If trustees run another bond, they discussed the need to better communicate with the public and clear up any misinformation.
“I really truly believe that the majority of people who voted no were misinformed,” Jena Wilcox, an assistant principal at Highland, said. “And it’s so easy to share misinformation through social media and other outlets right now … so we need to have a plan to better inform.”
Recently, bonds that have run a second time (and often with smaller asks) have tended to be successful.
District leaders also conveyed a sense of urgency so Highland students could have a fully-functioning school as soon as possible.
For now, trustees haven’t made any decisions and are still exploring their options. But regardless of what they choose, a return to normalcy is still a long way off for the Highland Rams.
“For our students who are in high school right now, most will never see a full school again,” Wilcox said. “That’s heartbreaking.”