Analysis: A big school election day is coming; here’s what to watch for Tuesday

The March 14 school elections were a record-setter — and the last of their kind.

Next week’s school elections are a big deal, too. The stakes are enormous. The rules are changing.

Here are four good reasons to watch Tuesday’s school elections — and four questions to keep in mind.

What’s on the line, all across Idaho?

School elections are inherently local, so let’s keep Tuesday in perspective. Only 16 of Idaho’s 115 school districts have measures on the ballot.

But several proposals are crucial:

  • West Ada is seeking a record $500 million plant facilities levy — and the state’s largest school district believes the money will cover a decade’s worth of building needs.
  • Coeur d’Alene is seeking a two-year, $50 million supplemental levy, which would be the largest such levy on the books. And this election is a sequel. Just two months ago, Coeur d’Alene sought to make its $25 million-a-year levy permanent; this proposal received 49% short, falling just shy of the simple majority needed to pass.
  • The Vallivue and Bonneville school districts have bond issues on the ballot, as they seek to build new elementary schools to ease overcrowding. The $78 million Vallivue request would build two new grade schools; Bonneville’s $34.5 million request would add one school.
  • In Idaho Falls, a $33 million plant facilities levy would cover a lease-purchase agreement for a new elementary school on the south side of town.

Not surprisingly, the pitches for these proposals come with some grim warnings. If these measures fail, administrators say, patrons would feel the effects immediately.

In West Ada, that would mean longer bus routes, more classes in portables, and continued waiting lists for career-technical classes, Superintendent Derek Bub said. In Vallivue, split sessions and summer sessions would be on the table, Superintendent Lisa Boyd said. And with all-day kindergarten already on hold in one school, Bonneville might have to look at other ways to shuttle kids around. “We’ve really pushed this can about as far down the road as we can,” Superintendent Scott Woolstenhulme said.

The forecasts are particularly dire in Coeur d’Alene, where trustees heard sharply divided public comments on the levy proposal this week. A failed supplemental levy would amount to a 25% budget cut, district officials say. Four schools could close, and school sports, extracurriculars and elective courses would all fall by the wayside.

A big-money May election: is this the new normal?

With $734 million on the line, this is a huge May election for schools.

And thanks to the 2023 Legislature, it probably won’t be the last.

House Bill 292, the Legislature’s far-reaching property tax overhaul, eliminated the March school election date — which had long been the districts’ favorite date for running bond issues and levies. Districts sought more than $1 billion in bond issues and levies this March. Many of the big-ticket bond issues failed, but as has usually been the case in past March elections, most of the supplemental levies passed.

The March elections have long been a security blanket of sorts for school administrators: a chance to run supplemental levies several months before the start of a new budget year, and in a standalone election. Now, without the March date at their disposal, districts will have to run their ballot measures in May, August or November. Next week’s election provides a preview of what to expect in 2024, when HB 292 permanently changes the election calendar.

Woolstenhulme is among many administrators upset at the demise of the March election, and the limited options that will be available in the future. Bonneville did run a supplemental levy in November, in conjunction with the statewide general elections, and it passed. But it passed with only 58% voter support, a closer margin than previous levy elections.

Next week’s Bonneville bond issue is a standalone election; no other races will appear on the ballot. But on even-numbered years, the May school election coincides with partisan party primaries — and looking down the road, Woolstenhulme says he’d be unlikely to run a ballot measure on a primary date.

Still, there’s only so much districts can do to stay outside the political fray. Elections, after all, are political events. And the West Ada and Coeur d’Alene proposal will appear alongside local library trustee races. Sleepy elections no more, these library races could actually drive turnout in Meridian and Coeur d’Alene.

Bub realizes the library elections could be a factor next week. But he says he is focusing on West Ada’s election, West Ada’s pitch to voters.

“I love the saying, ‘We can control the controllables,’” he said. “We can’t control outside factors.”

North Idaho resident Tom Meyer and Coeur d’Alene resident Alice Arambarri hold opposing signs against and for the school levy elections Tuesday in Coeur d’Alene.
DEVIN WEEKS/Coeur d’Alene Press

A novel approach for paying for schools: Will voters buy it?

On Tuesday night, watch the Coeur d’Alene results for the drama, and the West Ada and Idaho Falls results for the precedent.

Both districts want to use plant facilities levies, not bond issues, to cover building projects.

It’s a novel approach, and a political tradeoff.

The levies cannot generate as much money as a traditional bond issue — but as Bub is quick to point out, the pay-as-you-go approach would save West Ada patrons $255 million in interest. And because it doesn’t involve long-term debt, a plant facilities levy gives districts a way to work around the state’s imposing two-thirds supermajority bond requirement. The West Ada and Idaho Falls levies require only 55% voter approval.

If these measures pass ­— particularly West Ada’s record-setting proposal — will the plant facilities levy be the next big thing in school finance?

Not necessarily. And not everywhere.

Vallivue “absolutely looked at” running a plant facilities levy this year, as opposed to a bond issue, Boyd said. But in the end, a levy simply wouldn’t have generated enough money to meet Vallivue’s needs — unless the district decided to raise its levy rate, now a $215 per $100,000 of taxable value. And after trustees worked to lower its levy rate, reversing course and raising the rate was too risky, she said.

Bonneville ran the numbers too, Woolstenhulme said, but opted for a bond instead. The district is counting on close to $9 million in state bond levy equalization money to offset some of its costs. A plant facilities levy isn’t eligible for this state funding.

Bub acknowledges that West Ada is in an unusual situation. With relatively low debt — and meteoric growth that continues to drive up property values — his district was uniquely positioned to seek a levy that’s large enough to address project needs across 58 schools.

State money for property tax relief: Will it make a difference?

West Ada, Bonneville, Vallivue and other districts are asking for property tax money just as they’re getting money to reduce their property tax burden.

HB 292 didn’t just eliminate the popular March school election date. It created a new state fund to ease the local property tax burden. First, schools must use their cut of the money to pay down bonds or levies; after that, they can use the state money to help pay for a new school, or bond against their share of the money.

The State Department of Education has worked up preliminary estimates of what schools might receive from the $85 million program — subject to change, based on final school attendance numbers that won’t be available until late June. Based on the early attendance numbers, West Ada stands to receive close to $11.6 million from the first installment of state money. Bonneville could receive a shade above $4 million, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls could each receive about $3 million, and Vallivue could receive $2.9 million.

When lawmakers pushed HB 292 this year, they dreamed big. Several openly talked about building a state fund that could render school bonds and levies obsolete. Don’t bank on that, at least not right away.

Taxpayers should see some savings, as districts pay down old debts. But districts will still have to come back to taxpayers with new requests, at least for the foreseeable future.

“I don’t see it really impacting us,” said Woolstenhulme, who noted Bonneville’s existing $5.8 million supplemental levy alone exceeds the property tax relief funding the district is likely to receive.

“It’ll save the taxpayers regardless,” Boyd said of Vallivue’s $2.9 million share. “(But) that money’s not going to cover building a high school.”

Bub factors HB 292 into his campaign pitch. In 2022, West Ada collected $159 per $100,000 of taxable property value. That rate could drop to $131 this year, even if next week’s levy passes — as West Ada retires an old bond issue, and uses proceeds from HB 292 to reduce its property taxes further.

Like many administrators, Bub would like to get out of the business of running bonds and levies. But for now, he’s trying to tell patrons that the new state law will provide some welcome property tax relief, but it won’t immediately replace school ballot measures. “It’s just not enough to address those needs right now.”

Which means Tuesday’s school election day — a big one — is hardly the last one.

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday. 

Friday’s podcast: Kevin Richert and Quinn Perry of the Idaho School Boards Association talk about next week’s elections.

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]

Get EdNews in your inbox

Weekly round up every Friday