Idaho Falls again braces for bond issue

IDAHO FALLS — Voters in the Idaho Falls School District will decide next week on a nearly $100 million proposal for structural upgrades.

The Aug. 28 election gives the East Idaho district a second chance at securing funds for redesign plans at both Idaho Falls and Skyline high schools.

The proposal includes:

  • $55.8 million for a new Idaho Falls High School.
  • $28.4 million for renovations to Skyline High School.
  • $2 million to turn existing Idaho Falls High School into a career-technical education center.

On top of this $86.2 million “base bond” amount, the district is asking taxpayers for $13.3 million in amenities:

  • A $9.8 million performing arts center at Skyline.
  • A $3.5 million “gymatorium” at Idaho Falls High, which would double as both a gymnasium and a 450-seat auditorium.

The total: $99.5 million.

This amount reflects the Idaho Falls School Board’s months-long attempt to scale back its controversial $110 million bond issue to fund the upgrades, which failed to gain a two-thirds supermajority of votes needed to pass in November.

Here’s a look at what’s different — and what’s the same — this time around.

What’s different?

The price tag. Idaho Falls trustees spent months whittling the proposal to below $100 million — a promising threshold for trustee David Lent.

“If we can keep it under $100 million, it will pass,” Lent said during a May school board meeting.

Though the revised amount reduces some of the past proposal’s less-expensive features, critics say the district didn’t go far enough.

Lisa Keller, spokeswoman for local bond-opposition group “D91 Taxpayers,” called the new proposal “wasteful” and “expensive.”

A tiered approach. In November, the district requested $110 million to fund upgrades at both high schools.

Now, the district’s “tiered” approach allows voters to approve the $86.2 million “base bond” amount but not the additional $13.3 million, which can only pass if the base amount passes.

November’s $110 million measure received 58 percent support from voters.

More information from the district. Following feedback from patrons, the district beefed up its explanation of the proposed upgrades.

The district’s website now features colorful webpages with plans for both Idaho Falls and Skyline. Patrons can view concept photos, drafts of proposed designs and watch videos of trustees and educators explaining why they feel the upgrades are needed.

New ballot language. This spring, the Legislature passed a law requiring districts to add a statement to the ballot outlining a bond issue’s expected financial impact on local taxpayers.

This includes the measure’s estimated average annual cost to property owners in the district. Using the formula outlined in the new law, Idaho Falls’ current measure would run local taxpayers just over $180 per $100,000 of taxable value.

Idaho Falls superintendent George Boland said the new law gives an inaccurate view of a measure’s impact on taxpayers because it “does not take (property) growth into account or the money school districts receive through the state’s bond-levy equalization program.”

What’s the same?

The crux of the project. The proposal’s focus still hinges on improving learning-space at both schools:

  • Larger and more flexible teaching spaces.
  • Commons areas for collaboration.
  • Updated infrastructure for technology.

Other plans are either more functional or deal with extracurricular improvements, including enhanced safety and security infrastructure, traffic-flow improvements and updated athletic facilities.

A heated debate. Last year’s $110 million measure fueled a firestorm of debate. The district is facing similar opposition this time around.

Keller and her fellow anti-bond group members have again targeted the district’s repeated claim that the measure won’t trigger a local tax hike.

“Only the county clerk sets the tax rates,” Keller said.

Financial experts at Piper Jaffray, the asset management firm in line to sell the project’s bonds, have projected no increase to the district’s levy rate of $424 per $100,000 of taxable value.

D91 Taxpayers have also revived complaints over the district’s process for selecting a contractor for the proposed project, Idaho Falls-based Bateman-Hall Inc. The anti-bond group says Idaho Falls awarded Bateman-Hall with a “no-bid contract” to oversee the project.

District spokeswoman Margaret Wimborne and supporters of the measure have said the district’s requests for qualifications tied to the project drew several responses, adheres to Idaho law and renders the “no-bid” claim inaccurate.

Another group is taking aim at the district’s use of a flyer ahead of next week’s vote. The Idaho Freedom Foundation, a Boise-based conservative watchdog, announced Tuesday that it asked Bonneville County Prosecuting Attorney Daniel R. Clark to investigate whether the district illegally promoted the measure to voters.

The group pointed specifically to a flyer drafted by the district that the IFF says uses “selective and cleverly tailored” language designed “to omit key points.”

“When a school district only gives the ‘good news’ to voters and ignores the ‘bad news,’ it is purposefully misleading,” said IFF policy researcher Lindsay Atkinson.

Wimborne said the district has reviewed the group’s complaint and disagrees.

“The district created the flyer in response to questions from patrons about the district’s tax rate, how it works, how it would be impacted by the proposed bond and how the district could pass a bond without raising that tax rate,” Wimborne said. “We believe the information is objective, factually neutral and complies with (Idaho) statute.”

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].

Get EdNews in your inbox

Weekly round up every Friday