With an aggressive schedule, lawmakers will revisit school buildings debate

Legislators will begin taking a new look at an old dilemma Thursday: the question of paying for new school buildings.

A legislative “interim committee” will hold its first meeting to discuss school building construction issues. And the committee could be working on an aggressive timetable: The goal is to come up with some ideas by December — which could translate into bills for the 2023 legislative session that begins in January.

“Our intent is to make some progress in an area where we haven’t made some progress,” said Sen. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, a co-chair of the 10-member House-Senate committee.

For years, not much has changed in the way Idaho builds schools.

The Legislature has long balked at putting state dollars into school buildings, passing on most of the cost to local property owners. Meanwhile, the Idaho Constitution makes it hard for school districts to bankroll buildings, requiring two-thirds voter support to pass a local bond issue.

Neither of those political realities have changed much over the years.

But political momentum could be building behind a change.

Since Idaho is sitting on a record budget surplus — and since legislators in September agreed to put an additional $330 million a year into K-12 — education lobbying groups have intensified their push for state funding of facilities.

And earlier this year, the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations issued a damning report on the shape of school facilities. The report pegged the cost of bringing schools to “good” condition at $847 million — a lowball figure, as the report noted that the state hasn’t asked for a statewide school facilities assessment since 1993.

As a result, Lent said, committee members will want to move quickly.

“We may not have an opportunity like this in the near future, or even in the distant future,” he said.

The committee will begin with a review of past attempts to address the school buildings issue, including a review of the Performance Evaluations report.

By November, the committee could begin looking at other states’ approaches to school construction. By December, Lent said, that work could translate into “credible” proposals for the 2023 Legislature.

That next Legislature will have at least 42 new members — no matter what happens in the Nov. 8 elections — and that Statehouse churn is reflected in the interim committee’s makeup. At least three of the 10 committee members won’t be in the Legislature in January; Sen. Jeff Agenbroad of Nampa and Rep. Paul Amador of Coeur d’Alene lost in the May GOP primary, and Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding, is retiring.

Thursday’s meeting will begin at noon in room WW53 in the Statehouse’s garden level — but according to the agenda, the meeting will be at least partially remote. The meeting can be viewed online at Idaho Public Television’s Idaho In Session website.

Check back Thursday for meeting coverage.

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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