A bond in limbo: Pocatello hopes state money will rebuild burned school instead

Pocatello/Chubbuck school leaders are pinning their hopes for rebuilding fire-charred Highland High on a school funding bill that would translate to $43 million — and $31 million in new money — for the district. 

One hitch: It needs to become law first, and before March 30. 

“What if the state doesn’t come through with the money?” veteran Pocatello trustee Jim Facer said at a Tuesday work session, illuminating the elephant in the room.

Pocatello/Chubbuck School District Trustee Jim Facer. Photo: sd25.us.
Pocatello/Chubbuck School District Trustee Heather Clarke. Photo: sd25.us.

So trustees have a Plan B — “something in our back pocket” as Trustee Heather Clarke put it — in case the bill fails: putting a bond on the ballot for the second time

But the timing is tight. Ballot language for the May election is due March 22, and trustees would only have until March 30 to pull the bond if the facilities bill becomes law, according to Jonathan Balls, the district’s director of business operations. 

So they’re looking to politicians to fast-track House Bill 521. 

The highs and lows that the legislative session can wreak as local school leaders try to plan for the future was evident at Tuesday’s work session, when the meeting was interrupted multiple times with breaking Statehouse news.

First, Superintendent Douglas Howell shared with trustees that he’d just gotten a text message of import: the bill passed through its Senate committee, and would soon head to the floor. 

But then there were some clouds of confusion: There was talk that the bill might be amended before advancing. A few minutes later, more clarification came: it likely would not be amended and would go to the Senate floor as is. 

For Pocatello/Chubbuck, that was a good thing, meaning fewer obstacles for the bill to become law. 

Here’s how the bill would impact other districts statewide. And here’s a list of how much funding each district would receive if the bill became law. 

The bill, intended to reduce how often districts turn to taxpayers to support building costs, seems to be doing just that in Pocatello. It’s also unified Pocatello trustees, who on Tuesday voiced their unofficial but unanimous support for a rebuild plan: Using an estimated $25 million in insurance funds, plus the $31 million to $43 million in potential new funding from the state, to restore and improve Highland High.

Pocatello/Chubbuck School District Trustee Raymond Knoff. Photo: sd25.us.

The harmony is notable, since board newcomer Raymond Knoff publicly opposed the district’s November bond effort before his election. Knoff has typically been quiet during discussions of how to fund a Highland rebuild, but Tuesday, he threw in his support for the plan to forego a bond if state money comes through. 

“The taxpayers are going to get their tax break,” he said, adding that the district would get its school facilities dollars.

But an official vote on next steps won’t come until after the bill’s fate is determined, and would take place at a regular or special meeting in the days or weeks to come. 

Once Highland is restored, aging schools will become the next pressing need 

The bill, which requires districts to submit a 10-year facilities plan to receive funding, also sparked school leaders to discuss priorities once Highland is crossed off the to-do list.

Their main concerns seemed to be updating gym facilities for Century High (after voters in November denied a tax increase to fund the project) and rebuilding, improving or replacing Washington Elementary, which opened its doors in 1925.

“Is it salvageable for the next 10 years?” Facer asked. 

“Not according to our maintenance (staff),” Board Chair Deanna Judy said. 

“It is nearing the end of its life,” Balls agreed, adding it might be able to last five to 10 more years. 

Sue Pettit, the district’s secondary education director, suggested that maybe the district would run a bond in another five years to replace Washington. 

Ultimately, trustees decided to table the discussion for another day. 

Trustees want Highland rebuild committee to make safety a priority

Trustees also discussed the priorities for a new committee, comprising district staff and community representatives, that will make recommendations regarding Highland’s design. 

The list below was on the meeting agenda, which includes items trustees want committee members to focus on. 

The board will be asked to discuss Guiding Principles for future CIP Committee meetings, including, but not limited to the following: 

  • Aesthetically pleasing
  • Natural lighting prioritized in learning/teaching spaces
  • Increase the value of land/property
  • Investment in long term/not something that will decrease in value over time
  • Imminent maintenance needs to be done before additional improvements 
  • Fulfill the purpose intended
  • Meet/exceed safety standards for students

 Clarke suggested rearranging the order, so safety and maintenance issues top the list. 

“Aesthetics are probably not our primary goal,” she said.

Her suggestion comes after an EdNews investigation showed flagged hazards went unaddressed at the school before the fire.

School leaders discuss other legislation in flux

  • Restoring funding lost in the switch from enrollment to attendance-based funding.
    • “We are watching that very carefully,” Howell said. “We put as many bugs in ears as we possibly could … As long as it’s in education, that’s where we need it to be.”

      Douglas Howell, Pocatello/Chubbuck School District’s superintendent.
  • Reducing the bond approval threshold from a two-thirds supermajority to 55%.
    • “Preliminary indications are that that won’t go very far,” Howell said. 
    • “I can’t imagine them giving them money for facilities and then reducing the bond threshold … I would have been shocked,” Judy said. 
  • School choice/voucher bill.
    • Howell said it seems unlikely to pass, according to reports from the Idaho School Boards Association.
  • Bill barring mention of tax relief on bond/levy ballots.
    • Courtney Fisher, Pocatello/Chubbuck’s communications director, shared she would be testifying against the bill on Wednesday. 
    • “From a communications standpoint, this doesn’t add transparency, it further complicates transparency,” she said. “Any legislation should really be focused on creating a comprehensive (and accurate) picture for taxpayers.”
    • This discussion comes after a local government accountability group criticized the way Pocatello school leaders communicated about last fall’s bond. As a trustee candidate, Knoff also took issue with the district’s bond communications in an interview with the Idaho State Journal: “The school district’s projections of a net-zero tax increase are based on House Bill 292. However, the projected bond covers a 15-year period, and HB 292 only provides tax relief through 2026.”

The board’s next regular meeting is scheduled for March 12. 


Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro reports from her hometown of Pocatello. Prior to joining EdNews, she taught English at Century High and was a reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. She has won state and regional journalism awards, and her work has appeared in newspapers throughout the West. Flandro has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and Spanish from the University of Montana, and a master’s degree in English from Idaho State University. You can email her at [email protected] or call or text her at (208) 317-4287.

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