Bonneville County taxpayers mixed over prospect of simultaneous school bond issues

IDAHO FALLS — Bonneville County’s two largest school districts could be on a collision course for taxpayer dollars.

Trustees in both the Idaho Falls and Bonneville school districts are mulling over big-money options aimed at upgrading their facilities, and eyeballing potential bond issues for this November.

For Idaho Falls, it’s about extensively remodeling one of its high schools and rebuilding the other.

Projected price tag? $80-$110 million.

For Bonneville, it’s about building a new school — or schools — equipped to handle a dizzying influx of elementary students.

Projected price tag? $29-$65 million.

The two measures, if approved by trustees for the November 2017 election, would wind up on separate county ballots. And Bonneville County patrons would only be able to vote on the measure presented by their school district.

Supporters in both school districts say the proposed upgrades are vital to providing kids with a quality education.

Idaho Falls business owner Shana Poulsen

But those opposed take issue with the timing, pointing to a projected county-wide property tax increase tied to the recent measure to turn Eastern Idaho Technical College into a two-year community college — a tax increase estimated at $13.37 a year on $100,000 of taxable property.

Those opposed also say bond issues from both school districts would be especially burdensome for some Bonneville County business owners.

“I have a house in the Idaho Falls School District, but my business is in the Bonneville School District,” said Shana Poulsen, owner of C & S Auto Repair on Iona Road. “So this could be a double-whammy for me.”

Growth in Bonneville

Bonneville trustees had originally planned on pitching their upgrades to patrons in August, not November. But that changed July 12, when a newly sworn-in trustee motioned to nix a previously adopted measure to build a $58 million middle school.

Bonneville is now eyeing a new elementary school for around $29 million, or a new elementary school and middle school for around $65 million.

Bonneville superintendent Chuck Shackett

Though Bonneville Superintendent Chuck Shackett wants to build both schools, he said Bonneville patrons shouldn’t worry over projected costs in his school district.

“We won’t take our measure to the county if it means an increase to our levy rate — and you can take that to the bank,” Shackett said.

Bonneville’s rapid population growth gives the district a substantial cushion when it comes to raising its levy rate, which determines the portion of patrons’ property taxes funneled to local schools. Since rapid population growth means a bigger tax base, the district can currently bond for millions without raising its levy rate.

Shackett puts this amount at roughly $70 million — enough, he believes, to build both schools without incurring an increase.

“It just seems foolish to build a $58 million school when we can build both for a few million more,” he said.

Aging schools in Idaho Falls

Scrapping Bonneville’s August measure reintroduced the possibility of running a simultaneous bond issue with Idaho Falls, where trustees have debated how to best upgrade the district’s two high schools for well over a year.

Idaho Falls superintendent George Boland

Last summer, the district embraced plans to redesign Skyline High School and rebuild Idaho Falls High School. Last July, a financial expert provided property tax projections resulting from a potential $100 million bond issue tied to the project.

The projections showed that population growth in Idaho Falls hasn’t been completely steady. The district saw three consecutive years of decline from 2011 to 2013. As a result, the expert provided Idaho Falls with a variety of tax-increase scenarios for a $100 million redesign project.

The most conservative growth projection from 2019-2028 came in at 1 percent, which would spur an annual property tax increase of about $73 per $100,000 of taxable value. A less conservative growth rate of 3 percent  would bring annual tax hikes to $6 per $100,000 of taxable value.

Idaho Falls School District superintendent George Boland said trustees are expected to settle on an amount for the project, and whether or not the district will shoot for the November election, this Tuesday.

“I don’t think there should be a lot of confusion if all this happens,” said Boland, adding that his district could still shoot for the March 2018 election instead.

Patrons’ concerns

Tamara Connell lives in Pheasant Grove, a fast-swelling neighborhood located next to Bonneville School District’s main office.

Connell supported Bonneville’s original plan to build a new middle school, but now hopes trustees will introduce a measure to build a new middle school and elementary school.

“So often we shortchange our kids because people don’t want to pay a little bit more money,” she said. “But we need to look at it more as an investment in our future.”

Tamara, who “doesn’t mind paying a little more in taxes,” doesn’t own a business or pay property taxes on any other structures. Still, she said, those who own local businesses reap the benefits of better-educated society, which ties back to better school funding.

“It’s tough sometimes, but it’s worth it,” she said.

Poulsen, the owner of C & S Auto Repair, doesn’t completely disagree.

“I know we need to fund schools,” she said. “But do we need the kind of schools we build?”

Poulsen pointed to Bonneville’s most recent project, a $65 million high school now rising east of Idaho Falls.

The school, she said, looks more like a museum than a school.

“It’s crazy — when I drove past it, I said ‘no way’,” Poulsan said. “I understand that we need schools. Maybe we just don’t need these schools that look like art galleries and cost so much to build.”

Poulsen also pointed to the projected property tax increase tied to turning Eastern Idaho Technical College into a two-year community college, which applied to patrons throughout all of Bonneville County.

“I mean, when will it all be enough?”

Superintendent Boland said his district is mindful of the tax burdens bond issues can place on patrons, but that owning property in another district puts people at the mercy of taxpayers in that district.

“We’ll find out what happens during our meeting Tuesday,” he said.

Idaho requires a two-thirds supermajority for any bond issues to pass — a hurdle Bonneville has struggled to clear in the past. Bonneville’s bond issue for its new high school failed three times before passing in November 2015.

Devin Bodkin

Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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