Analysis: Another hyperlocal school election, defying prediction and pattern

Idaho voters rejected hardline conservative school board candidates. Mostly.

Voters stuck with incumbent trustees. Generally.

Money didn’t help challengers break through and win. By and large.

Voters were willing to put their property tax dollars into schools. More often than not.

There were plenty of trends in Tuesday’s school elections, but plenty of exceptions as well. National politics, and white-hot social topics, have certainly shaped Idaho’s education debate. But the elections themselves remain hyperlocal, confounding and contrarian — and that’s a pattern in and of itself.

Let’s delve deeper into the trends and the outliers:

Some ideological candidates struggled. In a pair of well-established Republican strongholds, Caldwell and Coeur d’Alene, voters rejected hardline candidates who would have moved their school boards sharply to the right.

The three Caldwell elections weren’t particularly close. In the most one-sided race of the night, two-term incumbent Travis Manning rolled up 63% of the vote, trouncing Nicole Trakel, the wife of conservative Republican state Sen. Chris Trakel.

In Coeur d’Alene, voters rejected a pair of hardline candidates that ran with the endorsement of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee — the construct of committee chairman and Idaho Freedom Foundation board member Brent Regan.

The message from Caldwell and Coeur d’Alene was clear: In these red communities, voters wanted something more than strident archconservatism. The message in other red communities — such as Nampa and Kuna — is tougher to decipher.

Incumbency helped. Well, a little bit more than it has in the past.

In all, 72 incumbent trustees were on the ballot Tuesday, and 43 won. This translates to about a 60% success rate.

Two Novembers ago, 26 of 47 incumbents won — a barely-better-than-a-coin-flip success rate of 55%.

Incumbents fared better in larger districts, like West Ada, Caldwell, Lakeland and Moscow. In each of these districts, three incumbents were up for re-election. They all won.

In seven other school districts, however, multiple incumbents lost. In St. Maries, voters ousted three sitting trustees, flipping the board’s balance of power in one night.

Money did not guarantee success. Tom Moore was a candidate in a hurry. Saying he had no time to go out and raise money, he simply loaned his campaign more than $50,000. This may or may not have been a record loan for a volunteer Idaho trustee’s race — but it was undebatably eye-popping.

The loan bought a lot of campaign signs for Moore and his West Ada running mate, Miguel Deluna, but it didn’t buy success. Moore received 34% of the vote, and Deluna received 32%.

We don’t know exactly how much Moore spent, nor do we know exactly how much René Ozuna spent to retain her seat. State law allows campaigns to file updated sunshine reports after the election — a grace period that serves candidates and their treasurers well, but does voters no good.

But we do know Ozuna went to the building community for fundraising help — and with no apologies, saying local businesses have a stake in good schools. We also know that incumbent David Binetti pledged to self-fund his own race, and pledged to spend whatever he needed to fend off Deluna and a third challenger, Mari Gates.

In other districts — like Coeur d’Alene and Blaine County — challengers put considerable but not Moore-esque money into their races, and still lost.

Yet money was likely a factor in the turnover in Kuna. Challengers Hillary Lowe and Michael Thornton outraised their incumbent opposition. Much of their money came from out-of-state donors, although Lowe claimed she knew little about her supporters.

Lowe and Thornton won easily. But their running mate, Kristi Hardy, received money from the same circle of supporters, and received a meager 32% of the vote in an open race.

Again, nothing fits easily into election patterns.

Bond and levy results were mixed. In several districts, a $168.2 million election day didn’t go according to plan.

Shelley voters rejected a $67.8 million bond issue to build a new high school. In Pocatello-Chubbuck, voters turned down a $45 million bond issue to cover work at two high schools, including fire-damaged Highland High School. Supplemental levies, totaling $4.7 million, failed in Basin and Mountain View.

With that, Tuesday became a $50.7 million election day.

In the aggregate, the bond and levy results weren’t surprising. The two-thirds supermajority threshold to pass a bond issue remains daunting — no matter when a district takes a proposal to the people. Supplemental levies, requiring a simple majority for passage, tend to fare much better — and 10 of these levies did pass on Tuesday.

And Tuesday’s elections probably signaled the start of a new trend: an uptick in school ballot measures in November. The 2023 Legislature’s property tax overhaul also eliminated the standalone March school election date, which had been the most popular time to run bonds and levies. With only three remaining options on the calendar, look for more school districts to run their bonds and levies in November — even if school administrators don’t want their elections running alongside races for mayor, governor or president.

To sum up a contrarian day at the polls, what better place to end than the most turbulent school district in Idaho?

Two months after voting overwhelmingly to recall two trustees, West Bonner voters decided to keep two of three incumbents on the job. But even this wasn’t so simple. Zone 3 voters rehired Troy Reinbold, an ally of the two recalled trustees and of former Superintendent Branden Durst, hired this summer. Zone 1 voters re-elected interim board chair Margaret Hall, who opposed the Durst hire. But Zone 5 voters booted trustee Carlyn Barton, a Hall ally who also opposed Durst’s hire.

In this small district — and really, most districts — school board elections are essentially neighborhood elections. This is local politics at its most basic level, defying prediction and pattern.

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

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