A $50 million question awaits Vallivue voters

The Vallivue School District is rooted in Canyon County’s rural past. The 145-square-mile district was formed in 1961, when 13 one-building districts merged to build a junior-senior high school.

Vallivue High School
Vallivue High School will exceed its 1,800-student capacity this fall. With enrollment expected to increase, the district wants voters to approve a second high school. “We really couldn’t afford to wait any longer,” Superintendent Pat Charlton says.

But Vallivue High School, sitting in open acreage south of Caldwell, has crowding problems resembling schools in nearby Meridian and Boise. With an enrollment of 1,800, it is the sixth largest high school in Idaho. This fall, the 17-year-old high school will be over capacity.

On May 21, the Vallivue school district will ask its patrons to approve a $50 million bond issue, with $43 million going toward a second high school. And in a district where rural Idaho collides with suburban sprawl, this is a unique debate.

The tax base

After the district decided in February to go forward with a bond issue, Vallivue Superintendent Pat Charlton became a fixture around the Statehouse. Charlton testified on several occasions on the personal property tax issue — debating in favor of the partial tax repeal that was co-sponsored by education groups.

Vallivue had no small stake in the debate.

According to 2012 State Tax Commission estimates, the Vallivue district collected nearly $993,000 from this tax on business equipment, furnishings and supplies; only eight school districts collected more. Vallivue derives nearly 12 percent of its property tax from personal property — collected, in part, from the Amalgamated Sugar beet-processing plant near Nampa and two shopping centers, including the Karcher Mall on the outskirts of Nampa.

Charlton argued for the $20 million partial property tax repeal, saying that the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry’s plan to phase in a complete, $120 million repeal would erode the district’s tax base and place a greater burden on homeowners. Education and local government groups prevailed — for the time being. Lawmakers passed the partial repeal, and Gov. Butch Otter signed it, calling it an incremental step toward eliminating this unpopular tax.

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But as it is, the $50 million bond issue will still equate to a tax increase for homeowners. For a home worth $115,000, the average value in the district, property taxes would increase by $40 a year.

The district’s ‘challenge’

Typical of many school bond issues, the Vallivue election is low-key. While backers have taken to Facebook to rally support, there doesn’t appear to be organized opposition. Community response has been generally positive, say Charlton and Vallivue High School principal Dick Brulotte.

But that doesn’t mean the bond issue is a slam dunk. The district conducted a telephone survey in January, before putting the issue on the ballot. Sixty percent of respondents said they’d support a bond issue — seven percentage points below the two-thirds supermajority needed to pass a bond issue. “That gave us our challenge,” Charlton said.

The linchpin of their argument is that the Vallivue district — shovel-ready and sprawling — has outgrown its high school.

If the bond issue passes, the second high school would open on the fall of 2016. By then, the district projects a high school enrollment of 2,122, well above Vallivue’s 1,800-student capacity.

And the 2,122 figure is a low-ball estimate, a crude calculation based on the district’s current population. It doesn’t account for any residential growth — new construction that was on hold during the recession, but new construction that Brulotte sees every morning on his drive to school.

District officials also say a second high school — located closer to Nampa, and a few miles east of the existing high school — would make for a shorter and safer trips to and from school, by bus or by car.

That’s one reason why the school board decided against trying to expand the existing high school a second time. Another reason was philosophical, Charlton said: The school board preferred two smaller high schools to a single “mega-high school.”

Later this month, voters will make this choice.

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