A need – according to Merriam Webster – is a necessary duty; a lack of something requisite, desirable, or useful; a condition requiring supply or relief. “Need” is the perfect word for a school district to use when communicating to the community why they are requesting a bond – one of the only tools available for schools to build, renovate, or replace their schools.
However, some who were against the November 2022 District 91 school bond are claiming that the district overstepped into the lines of advocacy by using basic terms like “need,” “aged,” and “overcrowding” when describing the schools. The bond failed, but the flare-up continues.
For public schools, the Legislature is constitutionally – and morally – obligated to establish and maintain a general, uniform, and thorough system of public, free common schools. But Idaho code further defines a “thorough” system, emphasizing the role of district patrons, school trustees, educators, state rules, and legislative oversight.
While it’s the Legislature’s constitutional obligation to establish the system, it’s locally elected school boards, composed of ordinary, everyday citizens, who work collaboratively with community patrons to fulfill Idaho’s constitutional duty to provide safe and conducive learning environments.
Communication between district and community about their needs is a constitutional obligation to Idaho’s kids.
In support of transparent governance, our associations partnered in the drafting of the Public Integrity in Elections Act. This act ensures that public entities refrain from using public funds, property, or resources to advocate for a ballot measure or candidate. Advocacy campaigns utilizing public resources are inappropriate – full stop. It is important to note that providing factual information, including cost estimates, the purpose of the ballot measure, property conditions, election details, candidate qualifications, and other necessary transparency measures, is information, not advocacy.
Despite this clarification, there seems to be confusion regarding basic terms used to communicate genuine needs such as “aged” or “overcrowding” within the Idaho Falls School District. School districts, cities, and counties must be able to communicate their needs to their patrons – especially when the needs are verifiable facts.
Year after year, the Legislature adds more stringent language requirements when it comes to tax questions. There is always an abundance of caution when it comes to picking the language a local government or school district might use in an educational campaign about dense topics.
Idaho Falls School District 91, in this case, responsibly and clearly communicated the reasons behind their bond proposal – the aging buildings, increasing capacity demands, and limited alternatives. They have nowhere else to turn but the taxpayers.
Communities should be concerned by claims suggesting that communicating genuine needs is equivalent to advocacy. If it is interpreted that by simply communicating a need as advocacy, we are not sure that school districts can sustain their operations or ever build a new school. Perhaps that is the point.