Analysis: The Legislature changes the rules on building schools … for better or worse

According to the conventional wisdom, March is the easy time to pass a school bond or levy.

It’s a chance to sneak one under the radar and take advantage of low turnout.

Tell that to school officials in Nampa. Or Kuna. Or Fremont County. Or Coeur d’Alene. Or Lakeland.

Last week, ballot measures failed in these five communities — among others.

It’s never easy to pass a school levy, and it’s even tougher to secure the two-thirds majority needed to pass a bond issue. That’s not a new political reality. The most recent election just hammered the point home.

But here’s what isn’t clear: Will the 2023 Legislature make things better, or worse? Things will certainly be different, because of a fast-moving and far-reaching property tax relief bill that has made its way to Gov. Brad Little’s desk. Unless he vetoes it, the bill becomes law.

House Bill 292 could represent the state’s largest investment into school building projects — something legislators have long shrugged off as a local problem.

School districts would share about $100 million, based on student attendance, in the name of property tax relief. And since much of the schools’ property tax collections go into building projects, much of the property tax relief would be tied to building needs. Districts would pay down bonds or levies, bank their share of the state’s money for future building projects, or bond against the state funding.

By comparison, here’s what the state puts into school buildings — from its limited go-to revenue source, the lottery.

  • In 2023-24, a projected $23.8 million would go into bond levy equalization, an offset on construction projects.
  • Another $29.6 million would go into building maintenance.

The lottery, while a limited revenue source, is at least ongoing funding with a 30-year track record. HB 292 isn’t.

The $100 million would go into a newly created “school district facilities fund,” and legislators would have the option of putting more money into the fund in future years. The $100 million is a bit of a patchwork. Some of the money comes from the state’s “tax relief fund,” which dissolves in 2024.

Even so, HB 292 ups the ante — and puts state tax collections into local school projects. Cynics might say it’s way past time.

The Idaho Supreme Court has ruled that Idaho’s constitutional mandate — requiring “a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools” — extends to the buildings themselves.

In 2005.

Eighteen years ago.

Rep. Jason Monks sounds like a lawmaker who wants to make up for lost time.

One of the architects of HB 292, Monks spent the fall of 2022 co-chairing a House-Senate working group that studied the school buildings problem. And he’s thinking big — as politicos are wont to do in times of a record surplus. The $100 million for schools, he says, is just a down payment.

“If I had my way, and I was king for a day, I would dump a whole lot of money into this program,” Monks, R-Meridian, told the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee Thursday. “This is a start. This is a good start.”

If it all sounds too good to be true for school officials, well, maybe it is.

HB 292 also eliminates the March election, the most important date on the schools’ election calendar. It’s the election date of choice, and administrators point to the timing: March allows school districts to get a supplemental levy on the ballot well ahead of contract negotiations in the spring — and if a levy fails, they can still try again in May, before setting an annual budget in July.

While many big-ticket ballot measures failed during last week’s $1 billion election day, voters still said yes to nearly $275 million worth of bond issues and levies. In many cases, voters renewed supplemental levies that have been on the books for years.

But last week’s election will probably be the last of its kind.

In Senate committee Thursday, Democrats made a short-lived and futile bid to try to remove the language on the March election. The minority’s move went nowhere, which was no surprise. Supporters have been adamant about keeping this section of the bill intact, and say it is only fitting to address the election calendar within an intricate, 20-page property tax overhaul. So the committee voted to send the bill to the Senate floor as is.

When HB 292 came up for a vote Monday afternoon, some Democrats raised halfhearted objections.

“I have a hard time calling the elimination of the March election date ‘property tax relief,’” said Sen. Rick Just of Boise, who voted for the bill anyway.

Same for Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking of Boise — who said the March election was “particularly important” for schools. But not important enough for her to vote no.

HB 292 passed 32-3.

So here’s the tradeoff for schools. Give up one of your four election dates — a crucial one — in exchange for $100 million. And the possibility of more money down the road, but there are no guarantees.

School officials have reason to be skeptical.

In August 2006, legislators tried to balance property tax relief on the back of public education. At then-Gov. Jim Risch’s insistence, they eliminated $260 million in school property tax levies, expecting another penny on the sales tax rate to pick up most of the slack.

The plan was politically expedient but unsustainable. When the Great Recession hit, and sales tax collections cratered, the state imposed unprecedented K-12 budget cuts. Dozens of districts were forced to convince voters to pass supplemental property tax levies — and some of those levies remain on the books today.

Which brings us back to the present. Maybe the 2023 property tax “fix” would fix something. Maybe it would make things worse.

But it would change things. Starting next March.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday. Due to the timeliness of the topic, this week’s piece was published on Tuesday, March 21.


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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