Lawmakers consider solutions for school facilities problems

With just four weeks until the start of the 2023 legislative session, time is ticking for a group of lawmakers looking to solve Idaho’s school facilities issues.

The Funding Construction of Public Schools working group met again Thursday to narrow down their policy options and hear additional proposals. Lawmakers discussed potential solutions, but did not make any formal decisions.

Sen. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, who co-chairs the committee, hopes the group will have some “deliverables” in the coming weeks. Options include proposing formal legislation — from the group or from individual committee members — or issuing a report that summarizes the panel’s discussion and recommends solutions, said Lent. “We need to have some resolution.”

The committee set out in October to develop solutions to the state’s pressing school building issues — failing bonds and levies, aging schools, community growth and a backlog of repair and maintenance needs. They hoped to have a set of proposals by the end of December.

Typically, districts are responsible for generating their own building funds through bonds and levies, pushing a bulk of the cost onto local taxpayers.

But lawmakers are sitting on a pot of over $300 million in surplus money set aside for K-12 by the Legislature and Gov. Brad Little during the Sept. 1 special session. And some see the money as an opportunity to aid districts that are struggling to build, renovate and repair buildings.

Thursday’s meeting began with a presentation from former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Bob Huntley on behalf of TOADS, or “Totally Optimistic Advocates Dedicated to Students.”

Huntley proposed two pieces of legislation.

One would direct $1.2 billion from the current state surplus into a fund to pay off over $200 million in current supplemental levies, pay back school districts for up to 25% of new bonds and levies, set aside around $500 million for school maintenance needs and dole out one-time, 5% salary increases to K-12 and postsecondary educators.

The other TOADS bill is a long-term option to address those same goals. It would generate around $1.2 billion per year by lowering the sales tax from 6% to 4%, and eliminating a large swath of exemptions from current tax code, according to Huntley. Essentially, the bill would lower the tax rate, but collect the tax against a broader base.

Thursday’s meeting saw two more presentations — one on using of COVID-19 emergency relief (ESSER) funds for school facilities, and another on the state’s current budgetary line items for education, set by the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee each year.

Brief overviews of two policy ideas followed.

Sen. Kevin Cook, R-Idaho Falls, led a discussion on a back-to-basics approach: cookie-cutter school designs, which local districts can spruce up with privately funded facilities for sports or extracurriculars.

Cook said he spoke with architects and builders from “the prominent religious organization in Idaho and Utah,” about the logistics behind standardized building plans. This was an apparent reference to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — known for using standardized plans — but Cook did not name the church directly.

“I don’t know if it’s the silver bullet that saves the state and all the school districts, but I think there are some savings and some smart things that we probably should consider,” said Cook.

Former Sen. Jeff Agenbroad, R-Nampa, suggested funneling endowment dollars into two pots — $40 million in guaranteed annual facilities funding, and $21 million in fluctuating funds that could be used temporarily but would not be committed to future bonds or levies.

Agenbroad said the endowment would provide more certainty than using surplus dollars.

“(The idea is) not just a one-and-done deal, because we’re not one and done with our schools,” he said. He added that the “devil’s in the details,” especially when it comes to distributing the funds. Committee members agreed they’d want to ensure smaller schools could access the money, along with larger districts.

Rep. Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell; Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise; and Lent tossed around the idea of kickstarting Agenbroad’s idea with a portion of surplus money.

“I like putting that (endowment) money aside, but it’s not enough to meet the current needs that we’re seeing in the state,” said Ward-Engelking.

Lawmakers thanked TOADS for their presentation, and said the proposals were worth considering down the line.

The committee made no final decisions Thursday, and gave no indication that they would meet again in December.

Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber

Reporter Sadie Dittenber focuses on K-12 policy and politics. She is a College of Idaho graduate, born and raised in the Treasure Valley. You can follow Sadie on Twitter @sadiedittenber and send her news tips at [email protected].

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