SALMON – A cracked foundation. Collapsing sewer lines. Outdoor food storage.
These are just a few of the problems at Salmon’s Pioneer Elementary School, which was built about 70 years ago.
“It is quite atrocious,” said Troy Easterday, the superintendent of Salmon School District.
Renovating the school could cost as much as $2 million, Easterday estimated. But in a community that has an extraordinary 0-12 record of bond failures since 2006, ballot measures cannot be counted on for major upgrades or a new elementary.
Salmon is one of many Idaho school districts that has struggled to pass bonds. Nearly half of all bond proposals have failed in the past 23 years. As the Legislature gears up and education committees plan to address school facilities needs, school districts are hoping politicians will come to their aid with a new infrastructure bill and surplus funds earmarked for public school buildings.
In the meantime, districts are left to use the resources they have – however unfit:
- The Idaho Falls School Board has been scrambling to find solutions to overcrowding issues after its record-breaking $250-million bond failed in November.
- The Middleton School District is in the same situation after a $59.4 million bond failed in August. The bond would have abated overcrowding issues at Mill Creek Elementary, where the lunchroom, staff lounge, hallways, conference room, and individual office spaces have been used as classrooms.
- Vallivue School District has asked the city for a development moratorium (as reported by Rachel Spacek with the Idaho Statesman ) to curb overcrowding in the aftermath of its failed $55 million bond, which ran on the August ballot.
At the same time, local taxpayers will shell out a record-breaking $596.1 million to support local education via bonds and levies. But the funds still seem to fall short – partly because districts rely on bonds for major upgrades and construction, and those don’t reliably pass.
In Idaho, bonds require a ⅔ supermajority to pass (one of the highest thresholds in the nation). Since 2000, voters have approved only 52 percent of proposed bonds.
The reliance on difficult-to-pass ballot measures to fund school facilities creates a system of haves and have-nots
This year, Boise School District will be collecting approximately $139.4 million in levies and bonds, while West Ada will bring in $61 million. On the other end of the spectrum, Emmett School District will be collecting about $1 million.
There are wealthy communities like Hailey, where school financing ballot measures are likely to pass (the most recent was a $25 million, five-year plant facilities levy that passed in August). And there are low-income communities like Salmon, where high-cost measures rarely do.
For now, Salmon is doing its best with what it has. The school nutrition staff trudges outside to get food stored in an outdoor shed or freezer, even when temperatures dip into the negatives.
Sewage backs up into a crawl space beneath Pioneer Elementary.
And the cracked foundation holds together, for now.
“The current state of the elementary facilities are, well, we’re able to hold classes, let’s put it that way,” Easterday said.
The elementary school is so small that only K-3 students fit inside it. Fourth and fifth graders take classes in on-site portables, and grades 6-12 are housed in Salmon Junior/Senior High School. A middle school was shuttered in 2013 because state-required updates were too expensive and student enrollment was declining. The school remains too costly to renovate and sits empty.
The state has the ability to pay for a new school, then have local taxpayers repay it over 20 years, basically forcing a bond.
In 2009, Plummer-Worley became the first district in Idaho history to make such a request for a new elementary school after its first was condemned. The state helped Plummer-Worley, but it’s never been asked to do so again. In Salmon, Easterday said that option “hasn’t been discussed at this point.”
Salmon plans to listen and play “the long game” when it comes to bonds
For now, Easterday is turning to the community for guidance on next steps.
He’s created a needs assessment committee, made up of local parents and community members, to take a look at Salmon’s facilities and consider how to improve them over the next three to five years.
Amy Fealko, a local parent, is one of the committee members.
“If I don’t get involved, who will?” she said.
Fealko remembers moving to Salmon in 2006. The school district was running a bond that year. She was excited, and figured that by the time she had kids, they’d have a new school.
But now, 16 years later, that’s not the case.
She has a sixth and eighth grader who attend the junior/senior high school, though she would prefer her children be in a separate middle school instead of mixed in with the high school students.
When it comes to feedback like that, Easterday said he’s ready to listen and plans to seek as much feedback from locals as possible. He’s willing to play “the long game” if needed.
“I’m going to rely on what my community says,” Easterday said. “If the community’s not willing to support or back (a bond), then there’s no need to waste the time and money … If this takes five years to get everyone on board, then it will take five years and let’s make it happen then.”
He said the district will likely seek a renewal of its supplemental levy this spring.
Salmon last put a bond on the ballot in 2019, but the $25.6 million ask failed with 58% approval.
Easterday gives two reasons for Salmon’s history of failed bonds. First, residents are proud of the existing schools’ history, and are reluctant to shut them down. “And there’s definitely nothing wrong with that,” he said.
Another factor is Lemhi County’s high poverty rate. In today’s economy, many families in Salmon can’t afford tax growth.
Chuck Overacker, the chairman of Salmon School District’s Board, was born and raised in Salmon and has a strong sense of the community. He listed several reasons why a bond hasn’t passed in decades:
- Most of Lemhi County is public land, so there’s a very low tax base.
- Salmon used to have five saw mills, which generated revenue and jobs, but those are all gone.
- There’s farming, ranching, and tourism in Salmon, but very little industry otherwise.
- Salmon has become a retirement community, made up of people who no longer have children.
- Salmon is in one of Idaho’s lowest taxing districts, so it attracts people who move there just for the minimal taxes.
- People in Salmon tend to be high or low income, with few in the middle.
That said, the community does support the district. Voters have passed levies and community members recently donated their time and money to help build a state-of-the-art recreational center for students.
Even so, there’s major work to be done at the elementary school.
“We keep putting Band-Aids on Band-Aids on Band-Aids,” Overacker said.
Without a bond passing, though, the district is left to keep using what it has.
“Something has to change,” Easterday said. “When it’s going to change, I’m not sure.”
School districts look to Legislature to ease facilities burdens
Easterday is pinning some of his hopes on the Legislature. Maybe this session, lawmakers will come up with an infrastructure bill to help communities like Salmon.
“They need to take a hard look,” Easterday said, adding that the state is sitting on a surplus and should invest some of those funds in school facilities.
Overacker said he would love to see a surplus fund set up that school districts like Salmon could apply to get grant money or to borrow at low-interest rates. But he’s skeptical.
“I have talked to my (legislator) until I’m blue in the face and gotten nowhere,” he said.
Sen. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, the new chairman of the Senate Education Committee, believes schools need help with facilities financing. He wants to put an additional $100 million of surplus money and $61 million of annual state endowment payments into school facilities.
Lowering the bond threshold to a 60 percent required majority would help, too, Easterday said.
Emmett Superintendent Craig Woods agrees.
“That’s honestly the thing that hurts 90 percent of districts on the bonds is that high majority,” he said. “It only takes 33 percent … to vote no (to fail a bond).”
But lawmakers’ efforts to do just that have long been stymied, so districts are left to take their chances with bonds however bleak the odds.
The Emmett School District is considering running another bond in the future (a $68 million bond failed there last year) and Woods plans to start holding public hearings to get community feedback.
“We’re a community that prides itself on being hardworking, blue-collar individuals,” Woods said. “The community is completely supportive of education,” but paying off millions in debt over 20 years “in a rural community is a tough thing to chew off.”
Data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report.