Much of school board candidate fundraising didn’t go public until after the election

A week after Idaho voters cast the final ballots in November school board elections, they still couldn’t see most of a month’s worth of their candidates’ campaign finances.

For the most part, that wasn’t the result of misreporting by prospective school board trustees, assuming reports are accurate. Instead, candidates didn’t publicly post about 45% of their pre-election fundraising until after polls closed, precisely because they were following the state’s rewritten sunshine law, an EdNews analysis of 43 candidates’ campaign finance reports found.

But in one respect, trustee candidate finances may have been their most transparent in state history this election cycle. Sweeping changes to Idaho’s sunshine law kicked in in 2020, forcing trustee candidates who raise at least $500 to post their finances alongside candidates for statewide offices on an online database on the Secretary of State’s website. That was a first for school board trustees.

But the change — made by the Legislature in 2019 and championed by some election officials as a transparency move — drastically shifted the schedule politicians have to report fundraising on so that candidates at all levels of government only have to report donations of less than $1,000 to their campaigns by the 10th day of every month in election years.

So, all donations made to trustee candidates under that amount between Oct. 1 and Oct. 31, the month before the election, could go unreported until Nov. 10. And most of them did.

EdNews added up 43 school board candidates' fundraising dollars reported through Nov. 11. We put fundraising into two buckets: money reported before the election, and money reported after the election. Then we broke those out into late and on-time reporting, based on state requirements. EdNews' analysis included all candidates who (a) raised at least $500, requiring them to post fundraising numbers; (b) reported their October fundraising, as required (some didn't); and (c) filed for candidacy and had their name on the ballot. Personal loans were included in the fundraising count to better reflect candidates' available funds.

Jalon Peters, for example, unseated an incumbent in the Lake Pend Oreille School District by just under 250 votes. He reported $5,700 of his $6,500 in fundraising after the election, all in line with state law.

Coeur d’Alene School Board candidate Glen Campbell narrowly failed to unseat the incumbent. Campbell reported $9,600 of the $12,500 he raised after the election had already happened. (Though $3,000 should have been posted pre-election, the bulk of his post-election reporting aligned with state law.)

The new calendar bears significance for higher-profile races coming down the turnpike.

The dollar amounts at play in trustee races, above-average as they may have been this year, still pale in comparison to the fundraising that statewide races like the governor's typically pull. But in 2022, when voters will choose a new governor, lieutenant governor and state superintendent, candidates will all play by some of the same rules trustees did in 2021 — not having to report October donations under $1,000 until days after the general election has passed. Prior to 2020, statewide candidates had to file a seven-day report, updating voters on their campaign finances one week out from the primary and general elections. Not so anymore.

Still, some election officials contend the law change has made local races like school board and city council races more transparent. In some counties, that may be true.

A move toward transparency?

In the past, it was up to counties to decide how to make financial reports for local races accessible to voters.

In Bonneville County, Idaho’s fourth-most populous, voters previously had to visit the county elections office to view hard copies of the reports, which were held in a set of binders, said local elections supervisor Brenda Prudent.

If voters wanted to see the reports, “they … came in and asked for ‘em,” she told EdNews by phone last month.

Prudent said she has witnessed a boost in transparency since those reports went digital with legal reform. And although smaller financial moves can still go unreported for weeks leading up to an election, she points out that those of $1,000 or more must be posted online within 48 hours of a donation or payout under Idaho’s current system.

It’s unclear whether reporting was more or less frequent in the past. Largely, that would have varied county to county, said Chad Houck, chief deputy in the Idaho Secretary of State’s office. In phone interviews last month, he pointed out that voters would have had to go county by county, getting hard copies of reports to see their candidates' financial backers. There are some October reports that show up in election reports too; donations of $1,000 or more have to be reported within 48 hours of receipt, he noted, though few donations to school board candidates are that large, in part because individuals can only donate a max of $1,000 to local candidates in Idaho.

While reporting is now centralized and done on the same schedule across the state, reforms have left voters in the dark on who donated to whom before they vote officials into four-year terms. That happened in a tense trustee election cycle that exhibited unique partisan overtones, driven by divisive debates over mask mandates and allegations of leftist indoctrination in the classroom.

Perhaps as a result, more trustee races were contested this election cycle than last. Candidates raked in big money amid unusually high trustee turnover and turmoil. The outcome of those expensive races flipped majority opinions on high-profile school boards and will shape school governance over the next four years across the state.

Further reforms?

But will the convergence of an unusual election year and a systemic quirk in campaign finance law lead to further revisions when the Legislature comes back next month?

There's no sign it will.

Third-term Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, hasn’t heard of any such proposals.

Though she's frequently talking to fellow lawmakers as she drafts unrelated legislation, "I've had no calls on that issue," she said.

A former school board trustee herself, she’s hesitant to force candidates to report too close to the election.

“I'm fully in support of government transparency,” she told EdNews by earlier this month. “But at some point, you've got to be pragmatic about it as well. And so maybe there's an improvement we could make, but I’ll tell you, the heat of the battle is hot in the days right before the election.”

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge

“It would be difficult, quite frankly, as a candidate” to report fundraising too close to the election, she added.

Huston Republican Sen. Patti Ann Lodge drove the reform back in 2019 as chair of the Senate State Affairs Committee. In what will be her last session, per Idaho Press reporting, there’s no indication whether and how she’ll look to tweak the state sunshine law. Revisions would have to go through her committee, where she sets the agenda, authority that effectively gives her veto power.

Lodge offered to take an interview last month but hasn’t responded to multiple emails since.

Blake Jones

Blake Jones

Reporter Blake Jones covers the politics and policy of Idaho's K-12 public school system. He's a lifelong Idahoan, and holds degrees in Creative Writing and Political Economy from the College of Idaho. Follow Blake on Twitter @jonesblakej. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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