Idaho Legislature Approves $2 Billion for Schools to Repair and Replace Aging Buildings

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.

School districts across Idaho will soon receive hundreds of millions of dollars to help repair and replace their aging buildings, thanks to a bill that cleared its final hurdle in the Idaho Senate on Thursday.

House Bill 521 will invest $1.5 billion in new funding and redirect $500 million over 10 years for school facilities across the state. But critics say it still won’t be enough to address the years of neglect left from the state’s failure to fund school facilities.

Idaho school districts have for decades struggled to fix or replace their aging, deteriorating schools and build new ones to accommodate the state’s rapid growth. Over the past year, the Idaho Statesman and ProPublica have reported on how Idaho’s restrictive policies and the state’s reluctance to make significant investments in school facilities have led to students learning in schools with failing heating systems, leaking roofs, discolored drinking water and overcrowded classrooms.

Citing the stories, Gov. Brad Little called to make funding for school facilities “priority No. 1” in his State of the State address in January. He proposed putting $2 billion toward school facilities over 10 years, or $200 million per year.

“Together, we delivered,” Little said in a statement on Thursday. “Together, we secured the largest-ever investment in school facilities funding in state history while giving families back more of their hard-earned money with property and income tax relief.”

The bill, which the governor is expected to sign into law, will create a new fund that will allocate money to districts based on average daily attendance. School districts could choose to take the money in a lump sum or annually over 10 years.

Estimates provided to the Statesman and ProPublica last month from the governor’s office show West Ada, the largest district in the state, will receive about $140 million from this fund. The Salmon School District, which has been trying for more than a decade to replace its elementary school and build a new K-8 building in remote Central Idaho, will get about $2.6 million — not nearly enough to construct a new school.

Some legislators raised concerns that the bill doesn’t fully solve the problem, favors urban districts and leaves rural districts without the funding they need. Lawmakers also said the state doesn’t have a complete picture of the scope of the issue, in part because there hasn’t been a statewide facilities assessment in three decades.

“Let’s not pass a billion-dollar bill and then say we fixed facilities at the literal expense of our rural school districts,” said Sen. Carrie Semmelroth, D-Boise.

The bill has been largely supported by education groups and superintendents across the state, though many agree rural areas will still not get the amount they need for new schools and maintenance.

“There are some who seem to believe this fixes the problem,” Moscow Superintendent Shawn Tiegs said in an email. “It doesn’t. It is just the start.”

Under the bill, the Moscow School District will get about $8.4 million from the newly created fund, according to estimates from the governor’s office. Moscow schools have faced issues with overcrowding, leaks, security, and heating and cooling. One of its elementary schools is nearly 100 years old and has a boiler from 1926.

Tiegs said the Legislature should consider prioritizing older schools or poorer districts. Some superintendents believe the Legislature should give a base amount to each district to level the playing field.

A series of supplemental bills introduced Thursday could change how much money school districts get for their facilities. The legislation, known as “trailer bills,” work like amendments by altering bills after they pass. One of the bills, which would still need to be approved by the Legislature, would require that each school district get at least $100,000 and would cap the distributions at $100 million. West Ada is the only district that would be affected by the cap, according to the estimates from the governor’s office. The remaining money would then be redistributed to smaller districts.

Education groups and lawmakers acknowledged the bill that passed Thursday will not eliminate the need for school districts to run bond elections to replace their schools.

“We believe this is an important leap in making these necessary investments in our school facilities,” Quinn Perry from the Idaho School Boards Association said during a legislative hearing this month. “While, again, this is an important investment, it simply will not exclude the reality that most districts will still have to ask their taxpayers for financial support on new builds or even school renovation projects.”

Passing bonds has been difficult for school districts because Idaho is one of two states in the nation that requires two-thirds of voters to support a bond for it to pass. A resolution, which could start the process to lower that threshold, has not yet been debated on the House floor.

The facilities bill that passed Thursday will also add about $25 million a year and redirect about $50 million a year to a fund that school districts can use to pay off their bonds and levies. School districts with remaining funds can use it for facilities projects.

The bill also included a number of concessions to gain support in the heavily conservative Legislature. It will lower the state’s income tax rate and eliminate the August election date, one of the three remaining dates school districts can run bonds and levy elections. Republican leaders say that given the new money, there will be less need for districts to ask their communities for funding. The bill will also phase out a program that used a formula based on income and market values to give some districts money to lower their debts from school bonds.

Some superintendents have also raised concerns because the bill will require school districts on a four-day week that want to receive the funding to meet a minimum number of instructional days. Dozens of Idaho districts have moved to four-day weeks to save money or attract educators, and some districts worry these new guidelines could disrupt their schedules. But bills introduced Thursday could repeal the provision or delay its implementation for a year, giving school districts more time to plan.

Paul Anselmo, the superintendent of the Kamiah School District, a small, rural district in North Idaho, said even with this bill, his district likely won’t get enough to make lasting improvements in its schools. Kamiah will receive about $1.5 million from the newly created fund. Kamiah schools have faced issues with security, leaks, heating and cooling, exposed wiring and holes in the walls.

“While we appreciate the additional funds coming into our district, the amount Kamiah would receive would allow us to continue to put ‘band aids’ on our facility issues,” Anselmo said in an email. “A small district could have severe needs and this funding would not allow them to fully address their needs.”

Asia Fields contributed reporting.