New legislative working group kicks off discussion on school buildings

Lawmakers gathered Thursday to begin discussing a longstanding issue: how to pay for school buildings.

The new Funding Construction of Public Schools working 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, said the 10-member, bipartisan team hopes to put ideas on paper by December, and take a proposal to the 2023 legislative session, which begins in January.

Concerns about aging schools, rising property taxes, growth and the state Constitution played into Thursday’s first discussions.

Districts rely on bonds and levies to fund new schools, add-ons and repairs, pushing a bulk of the burden away from the state and onto local property owners.

The Idaho Constitution requires a two-thirds supermajority to pass local bond issues, but many districts fail to reach that threshold. Bonds floated by the Middleton and Vallivue districts to remedy overcrowding both failed in August, despite receiving more than 50% support. Vallivue’s bond issue failed by less than 1 percentage point.

For more on the different types of bonds and levies, check out EdNews reporter Carly Flandro’s ‘Spelling it Out: Bonds and Levies,’ one in a series of education explainers.

And earlier this year, the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations estimated the cost of bringing schools to “good” condition at $847 million — likely a lowball figure, since the state hasn’t asked for a statewide school facilities assessment since 1993.

Thursday’s meeting reflected a intensifying conversation around facilities funding, in light of the state’s record budget surplus and an added $330 million of K-12 funding, approved during a one-day special legislative session on Sept. 1.

Andy Grover, executive director of the Idaho Association of School Administrators, threw out a few ideas in his presentation to the committee. The largest and most effective for reducing property taxes, he said, would be a school capital improvement matching program.

Through the program, districts could apply for grants from the state to assist with bond and levy costs, and reduce the burden on taxpayers. Grover suggested a starting pot of $100 million from the state, which would be replenished annually. But he said that figure is still too low.

Legislators had other ideas.

Rep. Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, asked Grover about the possibility of creating three standard state-funded building plans for districts to choose from. Sen. Jeff Agenbroad, R-Nampa, questioned whether introducing new state funds was the best option, suggesting that it could limit local control.

“We need help,” Grover said. “I’ve gotten very little pushback from any of our superintendents.”

Grover encouraged lawmakers to keep the Bond Levy Equalization Fund, one of the few current avenues the state uses to ease bond and levy costs.

The fund has provided $300 million in support since 2002, reported Paul Headlee, deputy director of the Legislative Services Office, to the committee. School districts received $20.5 million last year.

In comparison, Headlee calculated a new elementary school to cost about $18 million, a middle school around $38 million and a high school around $62 million. Statewide bond payments for the 2021-22 school year totaled nearly $176 million, he said.

Throughout the meeting, lawmakers referenced the state’s constitutional obligation “to establish and maintain a general, uniform, and thorough system of public, free common schools.” In 2005, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature was falling short of that goal.

“The ruling made it clear that the Legislature could not place the primary funding responsibility for school facilities upon local property taxpayers,” Lent said.

The group will use the remainder of October to brainstorm solutions. In November, members will look to other states and filter through policy options, hoping to have a proposal by the end of December.

The date of the next meeting has not yet been set.

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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