The price of growth: West Ada seeks bond issue, school levy

The West Ada School District is back in growth mode.

Across the suburban district, some 14,500 new homes are somewhere in the planning and construction pipeline. Those new homes will bring new students into West Ada — possibly at a clip of 1,000 new faces per year.

Not surprisingly, the state’s largest school district is pushing the largest ballot measure in Tuesday’s elections: a $95 million building bond issue. West Ada also wants to extend a two-year, $28 million supplemental levy.

Because of West Ada’s growing property values, the district says the bond issue and levy would not increase property tax rates. And both the bond issue and the levy are a response to West Ada’s continued — and anticipated — growth.

West Ada’s bond issue shopping list includes six items:

  • A $60 million high school, with room for 1,800 students. West Ada hopes to have the new school online by the fall of 2020.
  • A $16 million elementary school, designed to accommodate rapid growth in north Meridian.
  • A $8 million expansion at Mountain View High School. The 20 classrooms and expanded cafeteria would push capacity to 2,400. As it is, Mountain View’s enrollment exceeds 2,200.
  • A $7 million project at Star Elementary School, to add 10 classrooms and replace a gym and cafeteria built in 1911. “It’s the oldest building we have by far,” district spokesman Eric Exline said. Star Elementary is about 60 students over capacity.
  • A $1 million project to add four classrooms at Mary McPherson Elementary School, a 1960-era school. Even with three portables on campus, the school is over capacity.
  • A $3 million line item for acquiring land; a new high school site is the top priority.

Meanwhile, West Ada says a renewed, $14 million-a-year supplemental levy will provide some funding flexibility — and allow the district to continue adding teachers.

Since the Great Recession, the state has allowed school districts to siphon money away from staffing to cover other needs. West Ada took full advantage of this option. During the recession, West Ada hired 123 fewer teachers than the state funded. The district is gaining ground, said Exline, but it still hires 42 fewer teachers than the state funds.

What happens if voters say no Tuesday?

If the bond issue falls short of the required two-thirds supermajority, the district might need to bus some students to less crowded schools, or shift school boundaries to ease overcrowding. Some classes will land in portables, or gymnasiums or weight rooms, Exline said.

If the supplemental levy fails to get majority support, the district has few options, Exline said. About 90 percent of the district budget goes to salaries and benefits, so a $14 million hole in the budget would force West Ada to cut teaching positions, classroom days, or both.

Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, supporters and skeptics are taking to the Internet to debate the proposals.

Boost West Ada — a website launched by Joplin Elementary School PTO president Miiah Brown — is urging a yes vote on both ballot measures.

Some commenters on West Ada’s Facebook page aren’t sold. They want to know how the new schools will affect school boundaries — a question the district says it cannot really answer until the new schools are built and ready to open.

Others direct their ire at Meridian city officials.

“Meridian has been and is allowing uncontrolled new home building, which is what led to the overcrowding in the first place,” said Alyssa Smith Hernandez. “Now it is harder to solve the problem that should have been obviously foreseen and planned for.”

But Meridian accounts for only a fraction of the 14,500 homes in the pipeline, Exline said. He says the district is dealing with growth from Star and Eagle through West Boise — and the potential for growth near Gowen Field, south of Interstate 84.

More reading: An in-depth look at Idaho’s $410 million school election day.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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