Statehouse roundup, 3.1.23: Conservatives kill bill shifting endowment money into K-12 buildings

The annual Buy Idaho Day took over the Statehouse rotunda as vendors shared their Idaho products with lawmakers and visitors. (Darren Svan/Idaho Education News)

Conservative senators killed a bill Wednesday to use $61 million in annual endowment money to replace and repair school buildings.

The 5-4 Senate Education Committee vote effectively derails the one proposal that came from a House-Senate working group, which spent the fall studying the state’s facilities backlog.

It also means the 2023 Legislature might not address the state of Idaho’s school buildings — an issue that has gone largely unanswered for decades.

Senate Bill 1103 was not billed as a cure-all to address a building backlog that, according to a recent state study, runs in excess of $800 million. But the bill represented a chance for the Legislature to “show some movement” on the issue, said Senate Education Chairman Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, the bill’s sponsor, and the co-chair of the facilities working group.

The bill would have earmarked the public schools’ annual share from state endowment land proceeds — now roughly $61 million. The schools get that money now, and it goes into the operations portion of the K-12 budget. There, the money helps pay for transportation, health insurance and classified employee salaries, and goes into the schools’ pot of discretionary money.

In essence, SB 1103 would have shifted the $61 million into facilities.

Committee members suggested the schools could find facilities money from elsewhere.

After hearing testimony from Anna Miller of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative group opposing SB 1103, committee members asked why schools are sitting on budget reserves that could pay for buildings.

Lent and Idaho School Boards Association deputy director Quinn Perry said the reserves are designed to head off program cuts during a downturn — and Perry said the reserve money wouldn’t go far in addressing a district’s building needs. “It’s unlikely to fix all of the deferred maintenance and it’s certainly not enough to build a new school.”

Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, pointed to another funding source: the $80 million earmarked for Idaho Launch, Gov. Brad Little’s plan to create $8,500 in postsecondary incentives for every high school graduate. The bill narrowly passed the House and has not moved in the Senate.

Herndon, an outspoken opponent of Idaho Launch, said money from this program could be diverted into buildings instead.

Fellow committee conservatives agreed, killing SB 1103 on a 5-4 vote.

After Wednesday’s meeting adjourned, and as lawmakers left the committee room dais, Lent stopped at Herndon’s chair.

“You didn’t need to do that,” a visibly upset Lent said to Herndon.

In separate interviews with Idaho Education News, both senators held their ground.

“I don’t think he’s pleased with the result, but I honestly think there’s a solution here,” said Herndon, again pointing to the Idaho Launch money.

Lent suggested Herndon was singling out Idaho Launch, when there are other ways to juggle Idaho’s school funding priorities.

“A lot of legislators put a lot of time and energy into trying to get a workable solution,” Lent said. “This didn’t need to be this way.”

Roll call

Here’s how Senate Education members voted on the motion to kill SB 1103:

Yes: Sens. Ben Toews, R-Coeur d’Alene; Cindy Carlson, R-Riggins; Scott Herndon, R-Sagle; Brian Lenney, R-Nampa; and Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton.

No: Sens. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls; Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian; Carrie Semmelroth, D-Boise; and Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise.

School board elections overhaul on hold

A bill to overhaul school board elections is in limbo — but it isn’t necessarily dead.

The House State Affairs Committee voted to hold House Bill 171, which could allow its sponsor to tweak the bill.

As written, HB 171 would make three major changes to school board elections:

  • Trustee terms would go from four years to two years.
  • Candidates would have to declare party affiliation, or run as an independent.
  • Elections would shift to November of even-numbered years, putting trustee races on the same ballot with presidential, congressional and gubernatorial elections.

The sponsor, Rep. Joe Alfieri, R-Coeur d’Alene, said the collective changes would make school board elections more transparent — and make boards more responsive to patrons.

Opponents said they had a panoply of problems with the bill. They said the party declaration would needlessly inject partisanship into school board politics. They said the frequent elections would force candidates to raise tens of thousands of dollars for November elections, and possibly for party primaries. And they said rural districts would have even more trouble finding candidates to run for unpaid trustee positions — posts often filled with appointees.

“We have had one contested election in the 12 years I have served as a trustee,” said Challis School Board chairman Brett Plummer.

Critics also argued that the two-year terms could mean voters could overturn an entire school board in one election. As a result, a new crop of trustees would take office in the middle of a school year — jumping into tasks such as budgeting, labor negotiations and student discipline.

“School governance is not intuitive,” said Idaho School Boards Association deputy director Quinn Perry.

This argument gained traction with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. “I think the continuity aspect is pretty important,” said Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens.

Alfieri said he was open to changing his bill to allow for staggered terms — instead of having all trustee races on the ballot at the same time.

House State Affairs’ action Wednesday could allow the bill to return, in rewritten form.

Election Day bill is on hold, as well

The House abruptly short-circuited debate on a bill to restrict in-person learning on Election Day.

Instead, House Bill 111 is headed back to the House Education Committee for more work.

Co-sponsored by Secretary of State Phil McGrane, House Education Chair Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, and Rep. Greg Lanting, R-Twin Falls, the bill is designed to encourage the use of school buildings as polling places for May primaries and the November election. In-person learning would not take place, but schools could hold training, in-service programs or parent-teacher conferences.

Supporters of the bill said HB 111 would encourage in-person voting, while ensuring students are safe from people who show up at polling places. “They’re coming up in the creeper van, and they’re coming up to vote, I guess,” said Rep. Kenny Wroten, R-Nampa.

Opponents objected to the mandatory language in the bill, which would appear to apply to all schools, whether or not they are used as a polling place.

The House cut off debate on the bill Wednesday morning, and lawmakers went into a sidebar discussion about procedure. When the House came back into session, Lanting asked colleagues to return the bill to House Education. The House agreed to his request.

House passes ‘In God We Trust’ bill

A bill that would require schools to accept “In God We Trust” plaques and posters passed the House Wednesday.

House Bill 202 would require public schools and colleges and universities to “display a durable poster or a framed copy” bearing the national motto, provided the display is donated.

One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Rep. Jeff Cornilles, R-Nampa, noted that the bill only addressed donated items, and carried no price tag.

During brief debate, Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said the bill might send an unwitting message to students who aren’t Christian. She said all students should be able to attend public school, “without having it rubbed into their face that they’re different.”

The bill passed on a party-line, 59-11 vote and now goes to the Senate.

Buy Idaho Day vendors shared their locally created foods, spices and other items. (Darren Svan/Idaho Education News)
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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