Districts ponder next steps after failed bond issues

Bad timing. Ballot fatigue. Community opposition.

For a number of reasons, Aug. 27 was a rough election day for school districts across Idaho. From the Panhandle to the southeast corner of the state, voters rejected a string of school bond issues.

The tally: Six bond issues failed, leaving more than $154 million in school projects in limbo. Only one bond issue passed, as voters gave East Idaho’s Sugar-Salem district the go-ahead to replace a 65-year-old junior high school.

But as Sugar-Salem prepares for a $17 million makeover, other districts are trying to figure out where to go from here. Administrators maintain that their district’s building needs are unchanged — and often, they’ve gone unaddressed for years. But they also face a political reality: Getting two-thirds supermajority support for a bond issue is not an easy task.

“Physically and emotionally, I don’t know how many more times I can do this,” Kellogg Superintendent Nancy Larsen said Tuesday, her district’s first day of classes.

Larsen spent much of her summer campaigning for a bond issue. Voters said no, for the second time in three months.

This week, Idaho Education News interviewed superintendents from across the state — asking what happened in the August election, and what happens next.

Lakeland: $70.9 million bond issue 

Superintendent Becky Meyer did not respond to repeated interview requests, one week after voters overwhelmingly rejected the North Idaho district’s proposal.

But Chief Financial Officer Brian Wallace suggested the district will try to regroup.

“Our future facility plans are undetermined, but our needs are still there and our district continues to grow,” Wallace told KXLY TV. “We will continue to engage the school board and community and try to develop a plan that will be supportive to the vast majority of our patrons.”

From a numbers standpoint, Lakeland has a long way to go. The proposal — which included plans for a new high school and converting the existing high school into a middle school — received scant 28 percent support. In other words, a supermajority opposed the Lakeland bond issue.

Bonneville: $42.7 million bond issue

Bonneville Superintendent Scott Woolstenhulme attributed a resounding defeat largely to voter fatigue. “We’ve had to run bonds frequently,” he said.

Last year, voters in the growing East Idaho district approved a $35.3 million bond issue for a new middle school. Before that, a bond for a new high school passed — after three failed attempts.

Just 40 percent of voters supported last week’s request to bankroll construction of a new elementary school and upgrades at Bonneville and Hillcrest high schools.

Woolstenhulme said timing and opposition also played a part in the defeat:

  • The measure coincided with sticker shock from increased water metering rates from the City of Ammon.
  • D93 Citizens, a local group that supported the district’s middle school bond issue, decried the latest measure, which carried a price tag of $92 per $100,000 of assessed property value.

Leading up to the election, trustees and administrators said increased property valuations and new construction would cover the additional debt. Woolstenhulme told EdNews that D93 Citizens misled voters into believing property owners would pay the estimated tax on top of their current taxes.

Bonneville plans to grapple with enrollment growth through busing and boundary changes, and by relocating modular classrooms to elementary schools.

“I don’t think we’ll see anything else on the ballot this year,” Woolstenhulme said.

Oneida: $17.35 million bond issue

Superintendent Rich Moore also attributed his district’s failed bond issue to bad timing. He pointed to local tax hikes stemming from increased property valuations, and increased city water and sewer bills.

The proposal to replace Malad Elementary School received 57 percent support. In March, a $14.85 million proposal fell just short of the two-thirds supermajority threshold.

Access for students with disabilities is an ongoing problem at the aging school. In May, a federal judge ordered the district to pay $1.2 million to two students and their families — after a lawsuit that stemmed, in part, from the building’s structural issues.

Oneida uses a $120,000-a-year plant facilities levy to continue to address Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, and day-to-day maintenance. “That’s what you have to do with a school that’s 70 years old,” Moore said.

Moore said he doesn’t expect Oneida to float another bond “in the near future.”

Filer: $8.55 million bond issue

Voters sent a message last week, and Superintendent John Graham wants the district to take some time to sort it out.

Voter turnout was higher — at least compared to a March bond issue. Last week, 869 voters came to the polls, up from March’s 544 votes cast.

But the increased turnout skewed heavily in opposition to the bond issue. Only 48 percent of voters supported the August proposal. March’s proposal garnered 63 percent — despite a higher price tag.

The bond issue’s centerpiece was unchanged from March: expanding and renovating a career-technical center. Built in 1996, the center is too small for a growing district. A new center would help accommodate the district’s ag education programs, which are the largest in the state.

“I think the community’s in favor of that,” Graham said of career-technical expansion. “(But) we need to be sure.”

One sticking point, said Graham, was Filer’s proposal to buy land for a new middle school, a project the district will need to pursue in the next four to six years.

A citizens’ committee will continue to work on the issue, but Filer won’t come back with another bond issue in November, Graham said.

Kellogg: $7.9 million bond issue 

Running a bond issue for a new school would be a nonstarter, Larsen said, so Kellogg is reduced to trying to put Band-Aids on aging and unsafe schools.

In 2013, inspectors said Pinehurst Elementary School’s sewer system was at risk of failure. Enrollment has only increased since then, and Larsen isn’t sure what she would do with the school’s 470 students if the system fails.

In remote Cataldo, Canyon Elementary School is used as a science magnet school. Nearly 70 years old, the wooden school has no sprinkler system. Cell service is non-existent. The classrooms have only one door each — and since the doors open out into the hallway, they provide no protection if an intruder comes into the school.

“There was nothing in our bonds that was making our buildings pretty,” Larsen said.

August’s bond issue received 60 percent support, down from 63 percent in May.

Larsen attributes the loss, in part, to community opposition, which seemed more directed at new taxes than the schools themselves. She also says the new state-required bond issue language is confusing. While the cost of the bond issue would have come to $121 on $100,000 of taxable value, that language doesn’t account for variables such as the homeowner’s exemption, which reduces the impact on residential property.

Kellogg will put its school bond on hold, at least until 2020. Shoshone County has held off on running a bond issue for a new jail, to allow the school district first shot on the ballot. The jail bond issue will appear on the November ballot.

Shoshone: $6.83 million bond issue

For the fourth time, voters turned down the Magic Valley district’s plans for a new vocational building and multipurpose facility, classroom additions and other modifications.

But again, the proposal had solid support: in this case, 63 percent. Each time, Shoshone’s bond issues have received at least 58 percent support, but have fallen short of the two-thirds mark.

The results leave Superintendent Rob Waite in a quandary. He wants the district to do its due diligence before trying a fifth bond issue. But he also doesn’t want to abandon a plan that has considerable community support.

“In our past discussions during facilities and school board meetings, the consensus appears to be that the plan is solid, makes financial sense and solves the (district’s) security and educational needs,” Waite said in an email. “If it is changed, it will only be partial solutions to the needs and people are not sure if we should put an incomplete solution before the voters.”


Devin Bodkin and Kevin Richert

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