TWIN FALLS — A bill introduced Monday in the state Legislature would make school districts and government agencies wait at least a year after a failed bond or levy before trying again.
Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, brought the proposal to the House State Affairs Committee. If approved, agencies must wait to bring a measure back to voters if it’s “the same type or subject,” according to the bill.
Proponents say it would protect voters and force public agencies to ask for only money that’s really needed. But local and state education officials say the proposal would be devastating to local school districts, and could result in delaying projects and having less money for crucial needs.
The proposal would be a disaster for school districts, said Cassia County School District Superintendent Gaylen Smyer. “Sometimes, (ballot measures) are defeated, but the need doesn’t go away. By the time you push it a year… sometimes that’s compounding the problem to push it out that far.”
After a ballot measure fails, “sometimes you get some momentum built up you want to capitalize on,” he said. “On the flip side, there’s an issue of voter fatigue.”
Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association, remembers when Idaho’s election consolidation happened in 2009 — a change that established four possible election dates for school districts each year: in March, May, August and November.
“These dates were specifically chosen so school districts would have the ability to run a levy, if it fails, a second time,” she said.
Echeverria plans to watch the bill closely. If it gets a hearing, she’ll gather data about how many school districts have tried multiple times to pass a bond or levy.
She said she’s particularly concerned because the vast majority of Idaho’s school districts — 93 of 115 — have a voter-approved supplemental levy to help pay for basic operating expenses.
Without being able to try again for a year after a failure, Echeverria said, it could possibility devastate a school district.
Scott told the House State Affairs Committee last week, “the purpose of this bill is to protect voters from aggressive taxing districts that repeatedly run bonds or levies until they finally pass as a repackaged proposal that’s more palatable, or when availability of voters is at its lowest,” according to a Feb. 1 story by Idaho Education News.
If signed into law, it could impact some communities more than others. In Twin Falls, for example, the school district hasn’t seen a ballot measure fail since the mid-1990s.
Other towns have struggled to get funding. In Shoshone, the school district is trying during the March 13 election for a third time to pass a $6 million bond.
In August and November 2017, voters rejected measure. The majority of voters said “yes” each time, but not enough to clear the required two-thirds supermajority — a common hurdle for school districts.
The bond is slated to pay for remodeling the existing school, constructing a new multipurpose building — including a stage and gymnasium — and a new vocational building and small building with a couple of alternative-school classrooms.
Shoshone School District Superintendent Rob Waite said in an email that school building projects are one of the “most pure decisions” a local community makes.
“I am not sure why we would want to restrict or deny local voters the chance to decide what is best for their own community.” he wrote.
Some have asked why Shoshone district keeps trying to pass a bond, Waite wrote, but it has an obligation to listen to the community and about 60 percent support the proposal.
In Wendell, there’s also a history of bond election struggles. About a decade ago, a $1.5 million measure for a new agriculture building failed by just two votes. And for two years starting in March 2014, there were four failed bond attempts. It meant facility projects, such as replacing a leaky roof at the Wendell High School gymnasium, were delayed. Others weren’t tackled at all.
School officials decided on a different approach. It brought a supplemental levy renewal with a request for additional money to voters in May 2016 with a paired down list of facility projects. It required only a simple majority vote, and it passed.
Wendell School District Superintendent Greg Lowe said he doesn’t want to see the proposed bill in the state legislature become law. When the school district was pursuing a bond for facility projects, it received a large percentage of support each time, he said, and school officials got feedback from the community.
“While it was fresh on everyone’s minds, we got it back out there and the additional information we missed giving them,” Lowe said. “I think that’s a nice thing.”
It’s unknown when — or if — a hearing will happen to move the bill forward in the legislative session. But many Magic Valley school districts will be watching closely.