Lawmakers continue their dive into school facilities dilemma

Lawmakers reconvened Tuesday to continue the job of trying to solve the longstanding issue of paying for school buildings.

After bouncing around ideas, the Funding Construction of Public Schools working group made little movement in its second one-hour meeting.

In light of a flurry of failed bonds and levies in August, and after lawmakers added $330 million to the K-12 budget during a Sept. 1 special legislative session, the interim group has taken on a three-month challenge to come up with solutions to one of Idaho’s most pressing education issues.

The group’s co-chair, Sen. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, has said he hopes the 10-member, bipartisan team will put ideas on paper by December, and take a proposal to the 2023 legislative session, which begins in January.

Outgoing Sen. Jeff Agenbroad, R-Nampa, began the meeting with a presentation on the Legislature’s 2006 decision to cut property taxes for public schools, and raise the sales tax from 5% to 6%.

Joining virtually from the school he teaches at, Rep. Matthew Bundy, R-Mountain Home, urged lawmakers to consider the need to repair aging facilities, and build new schools to keep pace with growth.

The building I’m sitting in now was built in the 1950s,” he said. 

During the meeting, lawmakers floated a number of ideas:

  • Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, suggested tweaking the bond levy equalization fund to be more “workable” for communities. The fund pays interest on the bonds and levies of qualifying school districts. Den Hartog also said a revolving loan fund “can and should be explored.”
  • Outgoing Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding, said the committee should account for new school buildings and repairs, and also buildings for special programs, like career-technical tracks.
  • It’s unlikely the state will change the Constitution, which requires a two-thirds supermajority to pass a bond issue, said Lent. He suggested a permanent building fund with a low interest rate and 50% participation from the state.
  • Rep. Jason Monks, R-Meridian, who co-chairs the committee with Lent, said he hopes to see any solutions made available for charter school buildings as well.
  • Monks also brought up an idea from the first meeting: suggesting standardized building designs for school districts to choose from, and supplementing local bonds and levies with state money if needed. Den Hartog said the idea could work, but asked the committee to mind the balance between local and state control.

The committee agreed to split up the ideas and take a deeper look into solutions for the next meeting.

Lent reminded lawmakers of their constitutional responsibility “to establish and maintain a general, uniform, and thorough system of public, free common schools,” and said the committee should “give this issue a hard scrub.”

The interim legislative group will meet again in November, likely after the general election, Monks said.

Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber, a former reporter with Ed News that focused on K-12 policy and politics. She is a College of Idaho graduate, born and raised in the Treasure Valley.

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