Statehouse roundup, 2.8.23: School election consolidation heads to House floor

The Legislature’s latest attempt to limit school bond and levy elections is headed to the House floor.

Voting along party lines, the House State Affairs Committee endorsed House Bill 58, which would eliminate March and August school election dates. If passed, HB 58 would require schools to run ballot measures in May and November — in conjunction with primary and general elections.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Joe Alfieri, said the move could save counties $1 million in administrative costs, and eliminate low-turnout elections.

“We serve the public. … We must engage them in the best manner possible,” said Alfieri, R-Coeur d’Alene. “They’re listening in May and they’re listening in November.”

March is by far the most popular election date for supplemental levies, which account for more than $217 million in school spending statewide. And in recent years, the March election date has given schools a better chance to pass bond issues, which require a two-thirds supermajority to pass.

It was Pie Day at the Statehouse on Wednesday. For nearly 30 years, Idaho homeschool families have served free homemade pies while legislators tour a variety of student displays. This event is sponsored by Homeschool Idaho and its families.

But on Wednesday, school officials said their goal isn’t to curb voter turnout or work the election calendar in their favor. “We are not sneaking or hiding when we hold elections,” said Teresa Rae, a Boundary County school trustee.

Instead, they said the March election date allows schools to have a supplemental levy in place before teacher contract negotiations begin in spring. And they said the March and August election dates allows schools to make a transparent case to taxpayers, without fighting through the noise of high-profile elections. “We get lost in the narrative in the ballot in November,” Wilder schools Superintendent Jeff Dillon said.

Arguing against HB 58, Idaho School Boards Association deputy director Quinn Perry urged lawmakers to consider ongoing funding needs, such as school facilities and classified employee salaries. When the state fails to address these needs, administrators and trustees are left no choice but to go to voters. “Running a bond or a levy in their school district is one of the least fun things that they have to do in their job description.”

Testimony was mixed, however. The Idaho Farm Bureau Federation and the Idaho Freedom Foundation both argued that election consolidation would cut costs and protect taxpayers from  ballot measures that receive support from only a small segment of the electorate.

Pointing to turnout numbers in his native Madison County, the Freedom Foundation’s Ron Nate said a district would never run a ballot measure in March or August, if officials were truly interested in turnout and engaging voters.

The committee’s brief debate touched on larger issues of school funding.

Two North Idaho Republicans said they wanted to rein in spending — eliminating what Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, labeled as “mission creep.” Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, decried spending on social “mandates” that get in the way of facilities needs and education basics. “Our kids aren’t getting any smarter,” she said.

Rep. Brooke Green, D-Boise, chided colleagues for failing to adequately fund schools — which forces school districts to ask for support at the polls. “Our schools are tumbling and falling apart around us, and we’re not funding them.”

HB 58 now heads to the House floor. In 2020 and 2021, the House passed bills to winnow down school election dates, but neither bill passed the Senate.

Financial literacy bill moves forward

A bill to require financial literacy courses in all public high schools is headed to the House floor, following a unanimous House Education Committee vote Wednesday morning. 

Under House Bill 92, all districts and public charter schools serving grades 9-12 would be required to teach at least one financial literacy class. Students would learn about bank accounts, investment, credit and loans, insurance, the tax system, budgeting and other financial skills. 

The bill would not require teachers to obtain additional endorsements, and there are no projected costs to the state. Districts can use free, locally based curriculum (vetted by the State Board of Education) and can use funds from the state for professional development if necessary, according to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. James Petzke.

And to help districts avoid shuffling course schedules and teachers, a baseline financial literacy credit could fall into an economics course, he said. Districts would have the freedom to create a standalone course or a series of courses if desired. 

Requiring financial literacy would be a “giant leap forward” in helping students prepare for life after high school, Petzke, R-Meridian, told the committee. 

He also touted the bill’s bipartisan support. Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, is the bill’s sole Democrat co-sponsor, along with nine Republicans.

“This bill is something that we can all rally behind,” Petzke said. 

State superintendent Debbie Critchfield testified in support of the legislation, which she collaborated on with Petzke. The representative originally approached Critchfield on the campaign trail, she said, and inquired about her push to get financial literacy off the ground. 

She told the committee that by not providing financial literacy courses, the state is doing a disservice to its students, who need to know how to be fiscally responsible. 

“The skills of personal management are very different than the skills in an algebra class or a calculus class,” Critchfield said. 

Critchfield plans to introduce a rule before the State Board to create a financial literacy graduation requirement to go along with the required high school credit.

The bill also received support from Dale Layne, a representative of the Idaho Rural Schools Association and the Idaho Association of School Administrators. The skills outlined in the bill are critical for students as they head into adulthood, he said. 

Critchfield and Petzke fielded a few questions about the technicalities of the bill, before the committee sent the bill to the House floor, for a possible vote in the next few days. 

The financial literacy bill wasn’t the only legislation in the House committee Wednesday. 

Rep. Jeff Cornilles, R-Nampa, introduced a bill that would require schools to display the United States’ national motto, “In God we trust,” if an appropriate poster or placard is privately donated. 

The committee sent the bill to print with unanimous support.


Kevin Richert and Sadie Dittenber

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