Idaho Legislature Takes Up Bill to Help School Districts Repair and Replace 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.

Idaho Republican leaders introduced a bill Thursday that would provide $1.5 billion in new funding over 10 years for school districts to repair and replace their aging and overcrowded school buildings — a proposal they said would mark the largest investment in school facilities in state history.

The bill would create the School Modernization Facilities Fund, which districts could use for construction and maintenance needs. It would also provide money through an existing fund to help school districts pay off their bonds and levies, which are used to finance school facilities and district operating costs.

School districts across Idaho have for decades faced challenges to fixing or replacing their aging, deteriorating schools and to building new ones to accommodate growth. Last year, an Idaho Statesman and ProPublica series showed how the state’s restrictive school funding policies and the Legislature’s reluctance to make significant investments in school facilities have challenged teachers and affected student learning. Some students have had to learn in schools with leaky ceilings, discolored water, failing plumbing and freezing classrooms.

During Gov. Brad Little’s State of the State address earlier this year, he announced he wanted to make funding for school facilities “priority No. 1.” He proposed putting $2 billion toward school facilities over 10 years, or $200 million per year.

The new bill, which has about 40 co-sponsors and was crafted by the governor’s office and Republican lawmakers, would redirect $500 million from other programs in addition to providing new funding, bringing the total value to $2 billion over 10 years.

The bill included compromises needed to get it introduced and passed through the heavily Republican Legislature.

During his address, Little, a Republican, cited the two news organizations’ reporting and used photos from a recent article, in which students, teachers and administrators shared visuals and stories about the conditions they deal with on a daily basis. Idaho has long ranked last or near last among states in spending per pupil, and it spends the least on school infrastructure per student, according to the most recent state and national reports.

Districts across the state struggle to pass bonds — one of the few ways they can get funds to repair and replace their buildings — because doing so in Idaho requires support from two-thirds of voters. Most other states require a simple majority or 60%. Many superintendents told the Statesman and ProPublica that reaching Idaho’s threshold has been nearly impossible in their communities, and some have given up trying.

Idaho lawmakers have also discussed a proposal that would start the process to lower the two-thirds threshold for bonds. That proposal hasn’t been introduced yet this legislative session, but Republican Sen. Dave Lent said it is written and could be introduced next week.

The bill introduced Thursday would provide the money from the School Modernization Facilities Fund to school districts based on average daily attendance, meaning larger school districts would get more funding.

“If we’re going to spend money for buildings, that money needs to go to where those children are at,” Republican House Speaker Mike Moyle told the House Revenue and Taxation Committee Thursday.

During a virtual public forum last week with the Statesman, Republican Rep. Stephanie Mickelsen said that basing the allocation on attendance was a concern for some legislators and smaller districts, but that it was “the only way they could get the bill across the finish line.” This could leave smaller, rural districts that have long struggled to pass bonds without enough money to build new schools.

Assistant Majority Leader Jason Monks, R-Meridian, said it was the fairest way to distribute the funding.

“We’re always worried about making sure that it’s fairly distributed to everybody. And I can’t think of a better way to do it than just by how many students you have,” Monks said. “If you have more students, you get more money.”

The program would be funded with $125 million in state sales tax revenue each year over 10 years, which would be used to issue a bond for $1 billion. Each school district would have the option to get the funding via a lump sum now or get a portion of it annually.

West Ada, the largest district in the state, could get over $100 million, while the Salmon School District in Central Idaho could get about $2.4 million. Salmon has tried around a dozen times to pass a bond over the past few decades but has never reached the two-thirds threshold. (Those sums don’t include money districts would get from the other portion of the bill to pay off existing bonds and levies.)

The money is intended to be used for facilities “directly related to the school district’s core educational mission” and can’t be spent on athletic facilities that are not primarily used for gym class, lunch or other educational purposes, according to the bill.

The bill also includes elements designed to appeal to more lawmakers in Idaho’s Legislature, which is dominated by conservatives.

The second part of the proposal would redirect about $50 million from the state lottery and an estimated $25 million more per year into a reserve created last year that was intended to lower property taxes by helping districts pay off their bonds and levies. Districts with money remaining from this allocation could put that money toward construction, renovation and maintenance or save it for future needs.

The state would phase out a different program that provides some state support for districts that have passed bonds.

The bill would also lower the individual and corporate income tax rate from 5.8% to 5.695%, which the sponsors said would give residents more money so they could better support local bonds and levies. And it would eliminate the August election — one of the three dates on which school districts can run proposals for bonds and levies. Republican leaders say that given the new money, there will be less of a need for districts to ask their communities for funding.

“I made it no secret. I would love for school districts never to have to bond because we provided the resources that they need,” Monks told the Statesman and ProPublica. “That’s the objective from me.”

This bill doesn’t accomplish that, he said, but it gets closer.

To be eligible for the modernization fund, school districts also must submit a 10-year facilities plan to the state Department of Education that includes their anticipated construction, renovation and maintenance needs.

A spokesperson from the Idaho Education Association said this bill addresses a problem that has long been ignored and has the potential to create better learning environments for students. “Idaho is finally looking for a solution to this challenging problem, thanks to Gov. Little’s leadership,” the spokesperson, Mike Journee, said in a message to the Statesman.

The bill will now need a public hearing before it heads to the House floor.