Analysis: The big election day lawmakers don’t want to see

It’s a big school election day.

Not a surprising election day — but probably a record-setter.

On March 14, 47 school districts will ask voters to approve bond issues and school levies. The price tag could easily top $1 billion — far exceeding any school election day in recent years.

But March 14 might also be the last election day of its kind, because some lawmakers have been trying to get rid of standalone school elections for years. This session is no exception. On Feb. 10, the House passed House Bill 58, which would eliminate the March and August school election dates. A Senate committee is scheduled to take up the bill Friday morning.

Click here for a district-by-district breakdown.

Taking a run at school election dates is old news, and it’s pretty simple politics. The arguments haven’t changed too much.

First-year Rep. Joe Alfieri, the Coeur d’Alene Republican leading the push for HB 58, deploys many of the same talking points lawmakers have leaned on for years. The four election dates — March, May, August and November ­— allow school districts to simply run ballot measures over and over until they get the answer they want. Limiting school elections to May and November would improve turnout, he says, and save election costs.

(Alfieri is something of a one-stop shop when it comes to school elections. He has also proposed a separate bill that would limit school trustee terms to two years; require trustee candidates to disclose party affiliation; and move trustee elections to November of even-numbered years, in conjunction with partisan general elections. Taken together, these changes would effectively make school trustee elections indistinguishable from legislative elections.)

Asked if he considers school elections fundamentally broken, Alfieri did suggest there is something fundamentally unfair about the process. In an interview Thursday, he said it’s wrong for schools, or any taxing district, to keep asking for the same levy or bond issue repeatedly.

Rep. Joe Alfieri, R-Coeur d’Alene

As for next month’s $1 billion election, Alfieri says he’s comfortable with letting local voters sort things out. His issue is only with timing.

“My intent is not to prevent them from raising money,” he told Idaho Education News. “I’m actually more in favor of bond and levy elections than many other elections, because those bond and levy elections are decided by the people who are going to be paying for that. … I think that’s really a good thing.”

Alfieri has already gotten closer to passing an election consolidation bill than his predecessors. In 2020, the House passed a bill eliminating the March and August election dates; a 2021 bill targeted only the August dates. Neither bill found any traction in the Senate, but the Senate State Affairs Committee will take up Alfieri’s bill Friday morning.

While the school election calendar is facing continued scrutiny from lawmakers — like the 42 House members who sided with Alfieri, and voted to nix the March and August election dates — March 14 is just another Super Tuesday for school districts. The bottom-line dollar figure is higher this year, but big-money, high-stakes March school elections are the norm.

All told, 37 supplemental levies will be on the ballot next month, with districts seeking short-term property tax money to pay for everything from staff salaries and school security to extracurriculars and textbooks. That’s right in line with recent years; over the previous nine years, schools have run an average of 36 supplemental levies in the March election.

If history is a guide, most of these supplementals will pass — and many will do so easily.

From 2014 to 2022, schools have run 325 supplemental levies in March.

In all, 310 have passed, a 95.4% success rate.

Suspicion permeates the debate over school elections.

Cynics suggest school districts prefer a low-turnout, standalone March election, because it’s easier to cobble together the simple majority needed to pass a supplemental levy. That’s an oversimplification because, by and large, voters overwhelmingly support supplementals. In March 2022, for example, supplementals passed at a 94.4% clip. For the rest of the year, the success rate remained at 92.3%.

School officials say they need the March election date for a simple reason, and it has nothing to do with political expediency. They say the March election allows districts a chance to get a supplemental levy in place before they begin teacher contract negotiations, and the May election provides a last-ditch fallback before the budget year begins July 1.

On Tuesday — as a lineup of school board members made presentations to the House Education Committee — Genesee trustee Jim Hermann beseeched lawmakers to leave the school calendar alone.

He said he’s already seen the effects when neighboring districts have waited to run a supplemental levy until May, and failed. Teachers fled these districts for jobs elsewhere, rather than waiting to see if voters would have a change of heart in August or November.

If Idaho scales back the election calendar, Hermann said, that scenario would repeat itself in other communities, “and it will not be pretty.” It would take years for schools to recover from a failed levy — if they can at all.

Hermann, it’s worth noting, has a dog in the fight on March 14. Genesee will ask voters to say yes to a one-year, $1.18 million supplemental levy. Genesee has had a supplemental levy on the books for years, and voters have never said no. But a single failed levy would have a devastating effect on the district, Hermann told lawmakers.

A school district’s budget is inextricably tied to local voters’ willingness to pay.

That’s true in the 91 school districts that have a supplemental levy on the books — and especially true in a district like Genesee, where the supplemental covers 30% of the budget.

That’s also true when districts have to replace an aging school or build a new school to ease overcrowding. Voter-approved bond issues are basically the only way to pay for facilities. Six districts will seek a total of $496.6 million in bond issues in March, looking to clear the state’s imposing two-thirds supermajority threshold. Bond issues are a tough go, no matter when the election takes place.

The school election calendar is a perennial debate around the Statehouse. But it’s tangled up in more complicated, underlying questions about school finance.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every 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]

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