Opposition group blasts prospect of revised class schedules if Idaho Falls bond fails

Debate over the Idaho Falls School District’s quarter-billion-dollar bond issue is heating up, with the district raising the prospect of revised class schedules if the measure fails and a local opposition group decrying that idea and questioning the district’s efforts to be transparent ahead of the election.

Bond opposition group D91 Taxpayers called a recent email from Idaho Falls Superintendent James Shank “despicable.” The email raised the prospect of split sessions or year-round school if the bond fails.

“It seems like they know that many families cannot afford their new huge tax, so instead of looking for reasonable options, they are trying to twisted (sic) voters’ arms,” the group’s spokeswoman, Lisa Keller, wrote in a press release last week.

Idaho Falls trustees are considering ways to address safety, security and overcrowding issues if the record-breaking bond fails to meet the supermajority of votes it needs to pass Nov. 8, Shank wrote in an Oct. 18 email to parents, which included a link to a patron survey tied to the possible changes. The district could either split sessions or turn to year-round school to fight overcrowding, Shank added, encouraging parents to head for the polls, and to invite their “friends, family, neighbors and colleagues to vote.”

The district just closed the survey and is reviewing all the comments, spokeswoman Margaret Wimborne told EdNews Tuesday.

The measure — which would fund construction of a new Idaho Falls High school, two new elementary schools and extensive upgrades to Skyline High School — is the largest school bond issue to make it onto an Idaho ballot. It also marks the third time since 2017 that Idaho Falls has asked local property owners to bankroll major facilities upgrades. Both prior attempts failed.

The measure would address overpopulated schools, including Sunnyside Elementary, which the district says is at 145% capacity, and Idaho Falls High, which it says is at 141% capacity. Upgrades to Skyline High revolve around a range of safety concerns and other improvements.

But rising construction costs and the need for more space at the district’s elementary schools has more than doubled the price tag for proposed updates since 2017. And the $250 million now on tap for Nov. 8 accompanies rising interest rates, fueling concerns from local taxpayers who say they’re already strapped by inflation.

The district has met those concerns with informational meetings, information on its website and an impact calculator for patrons to estimate how much they would pay on a property-by-property basis to fund the measure. The district puts the estimated financial burden on local taxpayers at $100 per $100,000 of taxable value.

But the opposition group, which fought both prior bond issues, points to at least one unknown heading into the election: rising interest rates.

To curb inflation, Fed officials have pushed up their short-term rate by a hefty three-quarters of a percentage point three times in a row, the Associated Press reports. And more interest-rate hikes will be necessary to rein in inflation, Federal Reserve Governor Lisa Cook has said.

Shank told EdNews during an informational meeting earlier this month that current cost estimates for his district’s measure include inflationary factors and the prospect of future rate hikes.

But it’s still unclear exactly how future increases could impact the final price tag if the measure passes. An attorney representing the district recently reiterated this reality to a patron.

“For each 1 percent rate increase, what is now the anticipated interest rate and what is now the cost per 100k of taxable value … ?” patron Chelsie Liljenquist wrote to the district, according to documents D91 Taxpayers sent EdNews last week. Liljenquist shared the letter with the group out of concerns over transparency heading into the election, Keller said.

“District 91 objects to this request as it requires speculation,” Tolson and Wayment attorney Aaron J. Tolson wrote on behalf of the district in response to the question on Sept 28. “The requester will need to seek their own advice from a competent professional as the answer to this request is not within the bailiwick of District 91.”

Another question included in the response letter revolves around the district’s capacity to even put a $250 million bond issue on the ballot.

“What is the district’s current bond capacity?” Liljenquist wrote, in reference to a section of Idaho Code that caps a district’s bond requests for new and updated facilities at 5% of its market value.

Idaho Falls has a market value of just over $8.6 billion, according to the latest numbers from the Idaho Tax Commission, which district spokeswoman Margaret Wimborne shared with EdNews Thursday. That amount, along with an urban renewal value recognized by the state, puts the district’s debt capacity at over $441.8 million — well above the $250 million the district is asking for.

Tolson didn’t address that reality in his response letter to Liljenquist.

“While we are unsure what the requester means by the phrase ‘current bond capacity,'” Tolson wrote, ” … we note that the bond optioned by District 91 sets forth information regarding the amount of the bond.”

Tolson told EdNews Wednesday that it was initially unclear to him if Liljenquist was asking if the district “had a bonding partner … but I now think she was just asking for capacity.”

“Most school districts can tell you their bond capacity on a simple phone call. It’s common everyday stuff,” Keller said in response to Tolson’s response letter.

What other K-12 measures are on the Nov. 8 ballot?

EdNews has tracked other bond issues and levies in districts across the state. So far, we’ve found just two other requests, both from the Bonneville School District:

  • A two-year $11.6 million supplemental levy for a range of expenses, including classroom supplies, a school resource officer, coaches and extracurricular activities advisors and to support other positions.
  • A $1.5 million request for construction cost savings and interest earnings from the proceeds of a previously approved $30.5 million in bonds for updates and “repairing, renovating, remodeling, equipping and furnishing other existing schools and facilities.”

Bonneville’s supplemental levy requires a simple majority of supporting votes to pass, while the $1.5 million request requires a supermajority.

Devin Bodkin

Devin Bodkin

Devin was formerly a senior reporter and editor for Idaho Education News and now works for INL in communications.

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