When Tom Mortell first moved to Boise, his daughter’s West Ada elementary school was packed, with hundreds more students than capacity. Her kindergarten class was held in the teachers’ lounge, where a box was placed over the coffee pot.
As a lawyer for Hawley Troxell, a firm that helps districts navigate the legal waters of building and maintaining schools, Mortell got to be part of the solution. The firm helped the district pass a bond, and by the next school year, his daughter was learning in a new building.
“It was so heartwarming to see that work,” said Mortell, who’s been with the firm for decades and is now its co-managing partner.
Those were different times. Since then, the reality of passing bonds in Idaho has become rocky, with 70% of bonds failing since 2019. Mortell chalks it up to a growing hostility toward public education and frustration with taxes.
“I feel sad for the school districts that are going through the difficulties that they are,” he said.
Hawley Troxell lawyers have made it their business to help school leaders navigate it all. For decades, the firm has been on the front lines as trustees have pushed to pass bonds and build schools — tasks that have become increasingly challenging. And that has made their work, usually done quietly and on the sidelines, more visible and important than ever.
‘It doesn’t need to be a grand palace’
Mortell and Nick Miller, a partner at the firm, have become household names in education circles, wielding widespread influence even as they work behind the scenes.
At the heart of the firm’s education work is ensuring that students have a decent place to learn.
“It doesn’t need to be a grand palace, but it needs to not have leaky roofs, not have ancient systems,” Mortell said.
It’s a trickier goal than it might seem.
In Idaho, school officials hoping to pass a school funding measure must tiptoe through a minefield of legal barriers:
- Ballot language that has to be worded just right, and included with every public communication about a school funding measure.
- Communications with the public that cannot cross the line between education and advocacy.
- Plant facilities levies that can sometimes be used to build a new school, but not always.
- Having just one plant facility levy on the books at a time.
- Ensuring a district’s overall indebtedness isn’t more than 5% of its taxable value.
That’s on top of the “unreasonably high” two-thirds supermajority needed to pass bonds, Mortell said.
While they aren’t the only Idaho firm to do such work, Hawley Troxell is the biggest name in the business. The firm has been working with schools since the 1990s, helping them adjust to “tremendous growth.” In that time, the firm has seen more than 150 bond issues come to fruition, Miller said.
School leaders rely on Hawley Troxell for the expertise they lack
School leaders are trained to be “good stewards of our children,” said Joey Palmer, Vallivue School District’s assistant superintendent — not legal experts. That’s where Hawley Troxell comes in.
Quinn Perry, policy and government affairs director for the Idaho School Boards Association, has joined Miller to meet with state dignitaries ranging from the attorney general to the secretary of state.
“He really knows all the players and he knows and sees all the risks involved with what’s at stake … His expertise is invaluable,” she said.
Educational legal jargon is Miller’s second language, and lore has it that one of his bond presentations at a school board meeting was so dry it drove protesters from the room before they had a chance to speak.
“So if you need to clear a room just bring in Nick Miller and he’ll drone on,” Perry joked.
But boring is good, said Brady Dickinson, superintendent of Twin Falls School District. “If something is challenged in court, you want to make sure you’ve dotted your I’s and crossed your T’s.”
“They’re always urging us to be extremely cautious and careful in how we communicate to make sure we’re not jeopardizing our professional credibility or the results of the election,” said Scott Woolstenhulme, superintendent of Bonneville School District.
“I hope our legacy is that we’ve helped good people who are doing good things and trying to make our society better.” — Tom Mortell, Hawley Troxell
Hawley Troxell’s area of educational expertise is small, with an even smaller market of customers (as compared to customers outside public education), but it’s work done for public good and as “an altruistic service,” Perry said.
It’s also lucrative. The firm pulls in hundreds of thousands in tax dollars, if not millions, each year for their work in public education, both at the K-12 and higher education levels.
But Mortell said it’s personal, too.
One Jefferson County superintendent worked with Mortell on a school financing issue, and trusted him enough to call on him for help when his wife was stranded in Boise with a flat tire.
“I just loved the fact that he was comfortable calling me,” Mortell said. “We take great pride in our relationships.”
Mortell and Miller are alumni of Idaho high schools — Idaho Falls High and Caldwell High, respectively. Equipped with their Idaho public education, the lawyers found themselves working to support the institutions that were their launchpads.
School staff “are working really hard in settings where they’re undercompensated, and doing it for the good of our kids. And I just have great personal admiration for that — and I know that runs deep in our firm,” Mortell said. “I hope our legacy is that we’ve helped good people who are doing good things and trying to make our society better.”