IDAHO FALLS — The superintendent of East Idaho’s largest school district wants the state to shoulder more responsibility in funding K-12 infrastructure.
“That’s a big part of the problem here,” Bonneville Superintendent Scott Woolstenhulme told EdNews in a recent interview.
Woolstenhulme’s call for a change in infrustructural funding comes weeks after Bonneville voters rejected the growing district’s $42.7 million request for patrons to bankroll construction of a new elementary school and upgrades to Bonneville and Hillcrest high schools.
It’s also the first-year superintendent’s answer to minimizing the district’s growing tax burden on local property owners — and reducing friction between the district and a local opposition group.
Bonneville’s Aug. 27 request for upgrades — and the school board’s subsequent approval of a $2 million emergency levy — sparked a local tax battle in the growing district. Compounding the controversy is the news that Bonneville will hold off hiring a deputy superintendent in order to fund a secretive $191,000 payout to its former superintendent.
Opposition group D93 Citizens decried the district’s past actions as ill-advised, expensive and excessive.
“We are the highest taxed of Idaho’s 10 largest school districts,” said the group’s spokeswoman Hallie Stone.
Wooolstenhume acknowledged the truth of Stone’s claim — Bonneville collects more in local taxes than any of the state’s 10 largest districts. Bonneville patrons currently pay $580 per $100,000 of taxable property value. Twin Falls is second on the list, at $472 per $100,000. Bonneville’s neighboring district, Idaho Falls, has a levy rate of $424 per $100,000.
Past construction projects aimed at absorbing local population growth have kept Bonneville’s local tax burden high in recent years. Last year, patrons approved a $35.3 million bond issue for a new middle school. Three months later, the district’s new $63.5 million Thunder Ridge High School opened its doors.
But Woolstenhulme says Bonneville’s local tax problem transcends narratives casting the district as simply overzealous for local dollars. He pointed to a combination of two factors: the district’s prolonged population growth and its still-developing tax base.
Population growth has been a years-long issue for the district. This school year, enrollment increased by over 413 kids. Added bodies have required added seats. The state currently subsidizes interest on districts’ bond issue payments, but school construction projects are bankrolled primarily by property taxes from local home and business owners.
That’s where Bonneville’s numbers problem — and need for extra state help — really starts, Woolstenhulme contends.
Despite continued growth, Bonneville’s per-student market value is the lowest among similarly sized districts, at $240,000. That means Bonneville, despite its prolonged bout with growth, taps into a tax base much smaller than most similarly sized districts. For example, the Coeur d’ Alene School District’s per-student market value is $980,000. The Pocatello-Chubbuck School District’s per-student market value is closest to Bonneville’s, at $300,000.
Tapping into a relatively small tax base while grappling with population growth fuels Bonneville’s high levy rate, and illustrates the need for added state help in funding infrastructure, Woolstenhulme said.
“There are just no easy answers here,” Woolstenhulme said.
To level the playing field, Woolstenhulme suggests replacing local taxation with state dollars designated for school infrastructure. The state could allocate more dollars to growing districts or to those struggling with withering buildings.
Woolstenhulme said Bonneville has brought the issue to lawmakers before, but discussions get lost in other legislative priorities. Bonneville’s official channel for legislative change is the Idaho School Boards Association, which will kick off its annual convention in Coeur d’Alene on Nov. 6.
“(W)e haven’t proposed anything (for this year),” Woolstenhulme said.
Meanwhile, Bonneville will consider boundary changes and repositioning modular classrooms in the wake of last month’s failed bond issue. Woolstenhulme pointed patrons to a survey aimed at gleaning more feedback on the failed measure.