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All Idaho children deserve safe, well-funded school facilities

Sen. David Nelson02/09/2022

Idaho public schools are the backbone of our local communities. But for many districts, facilities are crumbling due to age and a lack of resources needed to make repairs. This issue is further compounded by Idaho’s extreme population growth in recent years, leading to significant overcrowding in many schools, which can now only be fixed with new construction.

The Idaho Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations recently found 20% of schools should be retired in the next 10 years, and 53% need significant maintenance or else they will soon fall in that category as well. The estimated cost to bring just the buildings in the 77 districts surveyed up to a “good” condition is at least $847 million. It will take between $1-2 billion for all school districts. (Here is EdNews’ analysis on the report.)

And we still don’t have enough information to really know the extent of the problem. The last statewide facility condition assessment of K-12 public school buildings was in 1993. At the time, districts had a total of almost $700 million in building repairs, additional facilities, or upgrades. When adjusted for inflation to 2020 dollars, that amount is $1.3 billion.

Currently, Idaho is almost last in the U.S. for funding school maintenance. We may be underfunding maintenance and capital investment by as much as $767 million per year due to the antiquated system we use to determine how much to spend.

A 2005 Idaho Supreme Court ruling found the legislature failed to meet its constitutional obligation to sufficiently fund school buildings. That still hasn’t changed. Of all 50 states, Idaho spent the least per student on school buildings at an average of $1,080. The national average was $2,306. The legislature has a yearly responsibility to revisit the formula used to calculate replacement value and revise, if necessary, but hasn’t done so since 2008.

Schools are forced to rely heavily on supplemental levies and bonds to address district needs — mechanisms designed as fallback systems that are now responsible for keeping the lights on. Since 2006, the year school funding shifted to the sales tax, 111 of 120, or 92%, school districts willing to run a bond had an active supplemental levy in place.

Only 40% of bonds — which require two-thirds voter approval — passed in that same time as well. If the voting requirement was lowered to 60%, most would have passed.

Idaho’s negligence isn’t just damaging our schools and communities but our children’s futures, and it presents a serious public safety issue. The legislature needs to address this issue immediately, and I want to see two things happen.

  1. We should create a state bond matching fund that aims to match half of the funding for new construction and remodeling. All of Idaho’s neighboring states, except Nevada, have grant programs that help districts with the building plans and provide capital funding for projects. If we appropriated $100 million yearly to start, we could make a real difference.

  2. We also need to change the bond approval rate from the current two-thirds standard. No neighboring state has that supermajority threshold. We should set it at 60% and consider having a voter turnout threshold added. The Idaho Constitution would need to be amended to do this, which allows all Idahoans to weigh in. This process should start now.

We can’t continue to kick the problem down the road and shirk our constitutional obligation. It is our job to ensure public schools receive adequate and uniform support, so we can best foster the next generation. But if safe facilities don’t exist, that can’t happen. Our educators and children deserve better. It’s beyond time to invest in Idaho schools.

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