Analysis: A messy, cumbersome school elections process played out Tuesday

Two big ballot measures failed. But from the Panhandle to Idaho Falls, Tuesday was a good day for second chances.

Voters in six school districts approved bond issues and levies, just months after they had rejected previous ballot measures. In most cases, administrators and trustees came back to the voters with smaller requests. In some cases, the voters simply seemed to have a change of heart.

Either way, these results reflect the messy and cumbersome way school elections work in Idaho. This is the process.

For now, anyway.

Many lawmakers seem determined to make the difficult job of passing a school ballot measure even tougher. The 2023 Legislature’s property tax overhaul will provide schools with tens of millions of dollars, starting this year, to offset voter-approved bonds and levies. But there was a huge catch: The same law eliminated the March school election — the date of choice for districts seeking bonds or levies.

There’s no guarantee lawmakers will stop there. Many lawmakers have shown their disdain for so-called “repeat” school elections — just the kind of proposals that fared well Tuesday night.

Some legislators seem to view “repeat” elections as a direct affront. Pushing in January for an earlier version of a bill to limit school elections, Coeur d’Alene Republican Rep. Joe Alfieri got personal. He said he had to take no for an answer after he lost a mayoral campaign — and he said school districts should do the same.

And there’s at least an appearance of paternalism here. Are lawmakers really trying to protect voters from “ballot fatigue,” as they like to put it? Or are lawmakers really trying to save voters from themselves?

Either way, the “repeat” ballot measures ran the table Tuesday night:

  • In Coeur d’Alene, voters said yes to a two-year, $50 million supplemental levy — two months after they narrowly turned down a permanent, $25 million-a-year levy.
  • Idaho Falls voters approved a $33 million plant facilities levy to build a new elementary school. It was a significantly downsized ask: In November, voters said no to a record $250 million bond issue.
  • Emmett voters said yes to a pair of supplemental levies totaling $2 million over two years. A two-year, $3 million levy failed in March.
  • Lakeland voters approved a two-year, $19 million supplemental levy, unchanged from a proposal that failed in March. They also passed a two-year, $2.3 million plant facilities levy, trimmed down from an unsuccessful six-year, $6.9 million proposal from March.
  • Payette voters approved a two-year, $1 million supplemental levy, after rejecting an identical proposal in March.
  • Vallivue voters passed a $78 million bond issue, primarily to build a pair of new elementary schools. Voters rejected a $55 million bond issue in August.

Depending on the wording of legislation, the state could make any or all of these “repeats” a thing of the past.

Lawmakers even have template language in hand. On three occasions — in 2018, 2020 and 2022 — the House passed bills requiring districts to wait 11 months before re-running a failed bond issue. Those bills didn’t address levies. But this kind of legislation certainly would have put Vallivue’s bond issue election on hold, at least until summer.

A matter of a few months might not have been make-or-break stuff for Vallivue. But a mandatory across-the-board cooling-off period covering all school elections — bonds and levies alike — would have a widespread effect on school finance.

If that sounds like hyperbole, look closer at two of Tuesday’s successful repeat levies, and the immediate impacts they will have on students.

Coeur d’Alene voters staved off possible school closures and averted cuts to electives, sports and extracurriculars. One of the Emmett levies will pay for special education and counseling.

In both districts, administrators had a second chance to make a funding pitch and cut their bottom line. And voters responded. Tuesday’s Coeur d’Alene levy passed with 63% support, up from 49%. The Emmett levies passed with 58% and 54% majorities, after the March levy received only 43% support.

This kind of give-and-take is not uncommon. It could well unfold over the next few months in West Ada, where voters resoundingly rejected a record $500 million plant facilities levy. And in Bonneville, where a $34.5 million bond issue for a new elementary school came up just short of the required two-thirds supermajority.

Renegotiation and rewrite.

It’s the process.

And in several districts, that process played out Tuesday.

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday. Due to the timeliness of the topic, this week’s analysis was published on Wednesday, May 17.

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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