After Decades, Voters Finally OK Replacement for Crumbling Idaho School

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with the Idaho Statesman. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

The Salmon School District in remote Central Idaho will finally get a new school.

After decades in which voters rejected every bond the district asked for, the community on Tuesday approved a $20 million bond to build a new pre-K-through-8 school with a resounding 72% support.

The election comes after the Idaho Statesman and ProPublica reported last year on how children across the state were learning in schools with freezing classrooms, leaking roofs and discolored water. Salmon was one of the most poignant examples — in the last two decades, the district failed to pass around a dozen bonds to replace its dilapidated schools. Idaho is one of just two states that require support from two-thirds of voters to pass a bond.

At Salmon’s Pioneer Elementary, the plumbing is failing, the floors are uneven and pose tripping hazards, and sewage sometimes backs up into a corner of the kitchen. Parts of the building aren’t accessible for students with disabilities. The foundation is crumbling.

Unable to pass a bond or to find other ways to fix these problems, the district turned to a state program created in 2006. It was one of only two districts ever to do so. But a state panel decided that Salmon’s problems — though bad enough to pose safety hazards — did not warrant a new school, only new roofs and seismic reinforcements. After that process, the district ultimately decided to close its middle school, which now sits abandoned beside the elementary school, surrounded by a razor-wire fence.

When the Statesman and ProPublica visited the elementary school last year, reporters saw many of the same problems the school had said it had about a decade ago, when it first applied for help from the state.

Over the past several months, a group called the Salmon Schools Needs Assessment Committee has been active on social media to provide information about the bond and share the challenges that the elementary school faces. In a Facebook post Wednesday, the committee said it was “overcome with gratitude and excitement.”

Jill Patton, the principal of the elementary school, said she is “deeply thankful” that the community came together to support the district’s schools. She praised the grassroots initiative spearheaded by the assessment committee.

The effort “involved a remarkable group that dedicated countless hours to understanding community concerns and identifying preferred solutions,” she said in an email. “They meticulously developed a plan that the community could rally behind.”

Since 2006, the news organizations reported, fewer than half of all Idaho school bonds have passed, but that 80% of them would have passed if a simple majority were required.

Idaho lawmakers considered a proposal that would have started the process to lower the vote threshold needed to pass a school bond, but the effort did not move forward during the legislative session.

Legislators did approve $2 billion in funding over a decade to repair and replace schools. The measure was signed by Republican Gov. Brad Little, who cited the investigation and called school funding “priority No. 1” in his State of the State address in January.