Idaho Falls faces renewed opposition to $99.5 million bond

Idaho Falls patron Lisa Keller hasn’t missed a local school board meeting in months.

The local homeowner and property investor is concerned over the Idaho Falls School District’s months-long revision of a $110 million bond issue to fund major structural upgrades at both Idaho Falls and Skyline high schools.

The $110 million measure failed to get the two-thirds supermajority of votes in November. Trustees want the issue back before voters in August, so in an effort to get it passed, knocked the measure down to $99.5 million.

Keller, who opposed the first measure, bristled at the revision. Hours after the board’s decision, she issued a statement on behalf of D91 Taxpayers, a grassroots group again opposing the measure.

“District 91’s new proposal is worse than the bond in November,” Keller wrote, calling the revised measure “wasteful,” “expensive,” “full of holes” and “bad for working families.”

Keller’s concerns largely reflect her concerns over the first measure, including fear of a local tax hike and what she considers an inflated price tag fueled by unnecessary proposed upgrades and the district’s use of a fairly new process for choosing a contractor to oversee the project.

The district again claims the measure would not raise its tax levy rate and says its process for choosing a contractor is legal and carries a number of advantages. District trustees and administrators also point to the new proposal’s overall reduced price tag and other revisions stemming from community feedback after the failed November bond issue.

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Idaho Falls is seeking less this time around

Though the revised $99.5 million measure reduces some expenses, the project’s main focus to upgrade both high schools remains the same.

This time around, patrons will vote on an $86.2 million “base bond” option designed to cover the proposed project’s three core upgrades:

  • A new $54 million Idaho Falls High.
  • Extensive upgrades to Skyline High, costing over $28 million.
  • A $2 million project to transform existing Idaho Falls High into a career-technical school.

Voters will also have their say on an optional $13.3 million “tiered” measure to build a $9.8 million performing arts center at Skyline and a $3.5 million “gymatorium” at Idaho Falls High, which would double as both a gymnasium and a 450-seat auditorium.

The new measure faces renewed opposition

Despite the revisions, the plan has revived opposition that engulfed the first proposal.

Idaho Falls trustees have touted the new measure’s reduced overall price tag. Trustee Larry Wilson said earlier this month that the proposal would pass if the school board could simply “keep it under $100 million.”

Keeping the cost below that threshold required more scaling back than the numbers themselves show, school board chair Lisa Burtenshaw said. When factoring in inflated construction costs and material shortages since the original measure failed, Burtenshaw said the total reduction from $110 million to $99.5 million is actually closer to $14 million.

In addition, trustees say the new measure’s tiered option provides voters with an added choice since last time around.

Yet support for the revised measure is still mixed.

“Does no one realize that new high schools are very expensive?” Idaho Falls citizen Ben Pearson wrote on Facebook after news of the revised bond issue broke. “We really should consider doing this. After all (the Idaho Falls School District) hasn’t built a new high school since the 1960s.”

In the same Facebook thread, patron Chelsie Liljenquist disagreed.

“I don’t feel like they scaled anything back!”  Liljenquist wrote. “Voting no again!”

During an interview with Idaho Ed News last week, Keller, who is also the spokeswoman for D91 Taxpayers, thrice equated the revised proposal for a new Idaho Falls High School to a “Taj Mahal” for students. Though she agreed that the aging schools could use some serious upgrades, Keller said the district could make due with much less.

“I’d support something closer to $60 million,” Keller said.

Tax concerns again fuel debate

In response to concerns over price, Idaho Falls administrators reiterate projections showing that the revised measure would not raise the district’s current levy rate.

“(The district’s) tax rate — $424 per year on $100,000 of taxable value — WILL NOT change,” a district webpage devoted to detailing the new measure reads.

This prediction stems from local property-value growth projections provided by financial experts at Piper Jaffray, the asset management firm in line to sell the project’s bonds. The experts used “conservative,” historically based projections to determine that extra tax revenues stemming from forthcoming property-value growth would cancel out a tax hike resulting from the measure’s price tag.

Keller worries that the area’s property values could stagnate or decline in the future, rendering a tax hike more likely.

“No one really knows,” Keller said. “(The district) feels like its a good deal for taxpayers to keep my taxes level. A good deal for us would actually be lowering them.”

Concerns over contractor also revived

Keller’s anti-bond group is again raising concerns over the process used to select a contractor for the planned construction, Idaho Falls-based Bateman-Hall Inc.

In 2014, the Legislature authorized the use of a “construction manager/general contractor” model, which allows these services to be provided via the same contract instead of being bid out separately. Idaho Falls trustees named Bateman-Hall as the construction manager/general contractor last year, after what district spokeswoman Margaret Wimborne called an “extensive application process,” with five different design firms answering the district’s request for qualifications.

Since then, Bateman-Hall has worked with both Hummel Architects and Alderson, Karst and Mitro Architects to draft and subsequently revise the district’s high school redesign plans.

Here’s a look at Bateman-Hall’s fees for the proposed project:

  • Pre-bond services: $24,000.
  • Pre-construction services: $40,000.
  • Project fee: 5.5% of the cost of the work.

Leading up to the election in November, D91 Taxpayers said the process resulted in Bateman-Hall receiving a “no-bid contract” to oversee the project. Wimborne and supporters of the measure say the district’s requests for qualifications, which drew several responses and adheres to Idaho law, render the title inaccurate.

“It sounds good,” Wimborne said, adding that there’s no such thing as a no-bid contract and that “we followed that (legal) process.”

Since it’s approval, the model has been used by districts across the state. Wimborne says it provides a number of benefits, including reducing the likelihood of on-site problems once construction begins by allowing the construction manager to play a role in the design process. It also allows the district to negotiate guaranteed maximum pricing to shift subsequently heightened construction costs from the district to the construction manager, Wimborne said.

Still, Keller calls the district’s use of the method “unwise,” arguing that the trustees should have called for more bids in the process.

“I think if they had gotten more bids, others would say we can save you money this way or that,” Keller said.

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