A nixed March date wouldn’t be the first school election cutback

Salmon’s Pioneer Elementary School has a cracked foundation, collapsing sewer pipes, and a kitchen that’s out of code but grandfathered in. Salmon has an extraordinary 0-12 record of bond failures since 2006.

A March school election date sparked political strife this week, partly driving Gov. Brad Little to veto a widely-supported property tax relief bill. 

The date matters because school districts frequently use March to run levies and bonds, which help pay for expenses ranging from books to teacher salaries to new schools — which the state does not fully fund. 

When school measures pass in March, that sets up district leaders to plan their budget and hire staff. And if they fail, districts can try again in May — giving them some breathing room and a second chance before teaching contracts are signed and budgets are finalized. 

That breathing room has been crucial in at least one recent case. Coeur d’Alene voters recently rejected a supplemental levy that accounts for a quarter of the district’s budget. That loss left a superintendent in shock, board members reeling, and teachers applying for new jobs

But, the district will get a second chance in May. 

Such opportunities may be lost if the House votes Tuesday to override Little’s veto. But what else — besides timely second chances — is at stake for education leaders?

Some Idaho history can act as a guide; a nixed March date wouldn’t be the first school election cutback. 

There was a time — before 2011 — when districts could run elections whenever they wanted. In 2011, they were restricted to running elections four times a year: in March, May, August, and November.  

How did that seismic shift impact Idaho education? Read on to find out. 

Go here for an explainer on bonds and levies. 

Learning from the past: the impacts of limiting school elections

Pre-2011 was a golden era of sorts for school elections. Local district leaders could call an election day whenever one was needed. 

During that time, supplemental levies (which usually have lower price tags) had the highest pass rates by far, followed by plant facility levies and bonds (which tend to seek the highest amounts). 

And a majority of voters gave the thumbs-up to all types. When considered together, more than 85% of school ballot measures were approved. 

Type Total amount sought 2001-2010 Total passed 2001-2010 % approved 2001-2010
Bonds 150  91 60.67%
Supplemental levies    552 524 94.9%
Plant facility levies 114 89 78.1%
All measures 816 704 86.2%

From 2011 on, when elections have been pared down to four dates each year, plant facility and supplemental levy approval rates have only seen slight impacts — and voters still say “yes” to the vast majority of them. 

But bonds, which are used to fund new schools, saw deep cuts — a drop from 60% approval to about 44% approval. 

Type Total amount sought 2011-now Total passed 2011-now % approved 2011-now
Bonds 149 65 43.6%
Supplemental levies   784 715 91.1%
Plant facility levies 129 106 82.1%
All measures 1,062 886 83.4%

Since 2011, fewer than half of all bond measures are approved — here’s why that matters for students

Idaho’s required approval rate for bonds to succeed is already one of the most stringent in the country at 66.67%. 

And as the data shows, it’s more likely that bonds will fail than pass. 

What does that mean for kids?

In some communities, like rural Salmon, it means fourth and fifth graders take classes in portables because there’s no room for them in the elementary school, which itself is beleaguered by a cracked foundation and sewage that backs up into its crawl space.

And students at Idaho Falls’ jam-packed Sunnyside Elementary can be found learning in closets, storage spaces, hallways, and the principal’s office. 

In both cases, district leaders have put bonds on the ballot, and they’ve failed:

Would blacklisting the March election date force schools and students into even tighter positions (and literally so for some students)? On Monday, Gov. Little and a handful of education organizations gave their emphatic answer: yes. 

And if history is any indication, they may be right. 

But not all agree with them.

Critics have called the March election date “gaming the system”, “wrong” and dishonest. Will they have enough sway to override Little’s veto?

On Monday, House Speaker Mike Moyle spoke bluntly about the March election day: “How can school districts honestly look at their patrons and ask for running a supplemental (levy) in March when they don’t even know what the Legislature’s going to give them?” he said. “That’s not even honest. … It’s gaming the system.”

He’s certainly not the first or only to question education leaders’ motives for the March date. 

In February, Rep Joe Alfieri, R-Couer d’Alene, criticized districts for floating multiple ballot measures per year, even after voters have rejected them. 

“Asking people to vote on things after they’ve already been decided is, frankly, wrong,” Alfieri said. 

And they take issue with more than the March date’s perceived immorality. Here are some top arguments for axing the March date:

  • It would relieve pressure from already overburdened taxpayers
  • Election consolidation would cut costs
  • Eliminating elections with low voter turnouts would protect taxpayers from ballot measures that receive support from only a small segment of the electorat

Plus, the vetoed HB 292 threw a bone to school districts by funneling them $100 million to pay down bonds and levies. Alone, the number does sound impressive. But, divided among all school districts, it wouldn’t be nearly enough to meet school needs.

Just weeks ago, voters shut down more than $512 million in outstanding school funding requests. 

The fate of the March election date — and in turn, school buildings and the students they house — is now in the hands of House lawmakers. 

Data Analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report. 


Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro reports from her hometown of Pocatello. Prior to joining EdNews, she taught English at Century High and was a reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. She has won state and regional journalism awards, and her work has appeared in newspapers throughout the West. Flandro has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and Spanish from the University of Montana, and a master’s degree in English from Idaho State University. You can email her at [email protected] or call or text her at (208) 317-4287.

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