Facing HB 521 uncertainties, Pocatello trustees make split decision to press on with $33 million bond ask

(Update: Gov. Brad Little signed House Bill 521 into law at 2:33 p.m. Friday, though trustees did not know this at the time of the meeting.) 

Pocatello-Chubbuck trustees made a split decision at a special meeting Friday to press forward with a $33 million bond ask in May, after postponing the decision as long as they could. 

The ballot measure’s fate was largely hinging on House Bill 521, a sweeping facilities funding bill, which would direct $43 million to the district. District leaders had discussed canceling the election if the bill became law. 

But as of Friday afternoon, it was still waiting on Gov. Brad Little’s signature. On top of that, a series of proposed amendments to the bill make it unclear when districts might get those dollars, and at what cost. 

“My brain is just swirling,” Trustee Heather Clarke said at one point during the meeting. 

The conversation over whether to continue with the May election was down to the wire  — it began when the special meeting was called to order at about 4:15 p.m., with a decision due to Bannock County officials by 5 p.m.

“We have 22 minutes to decide,” Jonathan Balls, the district’s director of business operations, said at one point. 

With about 12 minutes to spare, trustees voted 3-2 to continue with the bond election. Trustees Deanna Judy, Clarke, and Jim Facer voted for it, and trustees Raymond Knoff and Angie Oliver voted against it. 

If passed, the bond will go toward rebuilding and improving Highland High School, partially destroyed in a fire last year. These bond funds would be in addition to the estimated $25 million in insurance monies.


The project includes: (a) replacing facilities lost or damaged in the April 2023 fire, (b) adding, remodeling, and modernizing science classrooms, (c) replacing and increasing the size of the gymnasium and activity space, (d) constructing an auditorium

Thursday, a newly formed political action committee urged trustees to continue with the election due to “the many unknowns that lay ahead with the current legislative session.”

“We cannot count on our legislators to be fully supportive of our specific local needs as a school district,” wrote the seven PAC members.  

They pointed out that one trailer, Senate Bill 1444, if passed, would postpone doling out facilities funds for a year. If the district did not have a bond to fall back on, the Highland rebuild would be further delayed. 

“We feel that a bond is going to be the only guaranteed way to move forward with the (rebuild),” PAC members wrote in a letter to trustees. “Highland High School, and the burdensome ripple effect of its damage, cannot wait.”

Judy expressed similar urgency and support for continuing with the bond election: “I will not gamble building the school back.”

On the flip side, if HB 521 becomes law and the $43 million were to become available this summer, the district would be running an election for money it no longer needs. 

“We would have egg on our face,” as Clarke put it. 

“We’re going to look like we’re being greedy,” Oliver said. 

Knoff expressed confidence that the bill will become law and the $43 million will come through this summer, and said the district shouldn’t risk going to taxpayers if it doesn’t have to. Plus, trustees will likely run a supplemental levy in November, and a May ask could jeopardize that. 

It would risk what Balls called “ballot fatigue” — when voters are put off by too many asks in a row. 

Douglas Howell, the Pocatello-Chubbuck superintendent, said he’s “90 percent confident” that the $43 million will be in hand by July. 

“But the other 10 percent is not worth the risk to me, so I think we move forward with the bond,” he said. “I think we will be able to overcome any negativity associated with it.”

May’s election will mark the second time the district has asked taxpayers to pitch in on the rebuild, after a $45 million bond ask failed in November. 

If passed, the bond would cost taxpayers $50 per $100,000 of taxable assessed value per year. District leaders are aiming to complete the Highland rebuild by fall 2027, according to a press release.

Further reading: Pocatello trustees approve language for $33 million bond ask

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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