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Voters reject Cassia County, Minidoka County and Filer school bonds

TWIN FALLS — Voters rejected the largest three school bonds in the March 12 election — Cassia County, Minidoka County and Filer — but approved smaller ballot measures across the Magic Valley.

To help keep up with enrollment growth and finish leftover projects from a 2015 bond, the Cassia County School District sought $56.7 million bond. While 53.91 percent of voters said “yes” Tuesday, the tally fell far short of the two-thirds supermajority needed to pass.

“I think that there was a great effort in the community and a desire by the (school) board to try to provide information for patrons,” Cassia County School District spokeswoman Debbie Critchfield said Tuesday night. “This is the way the community has input on solutions for facility needs.”

The Cassia County school board will meet March 21 to talk about what comes next, Critchfield said. “The growth and the pressures of aging facilities, that doesn’t change or go away.”

The school board will look at what it can do that’s within its control, she said, and “find options for pressure points” affecting schools across Cassia County.

The bond would have paid for an extensive list of projects, with the biggest ticket items including classrooms at four schools, finishing the new Declo Elementary School and demolishing the old building, new gymnasiums at two schools, expanding Cassia Regional Technical Center, and purchasing land and building a new agriculture science building at Declo High School.

In a written statement, Cassia County School District Superintendent Jim Shank said: “We are disappointed but recognize that the voters of Cassia County have spoken. Regardless of the outcome, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the citizen’s committee, the Board of Trustees the campaign, our staff, parent-teacher organizations, media outlets and to those who considered the needs of our school buildings. A tremendous effort was put forth and we honor that effort.

“Looking ahead, it is clear that the facility needs of the district have not changed. Growth without additional classrooms will require some difficult decisions. The repair, maintenance, and upgrade of aging structures will continue to be a significant challenge.”

Back in 2015 — after three failed attempts — Cassia County voters approved a $36.95 million bond to build new schools and complete other projects across the Cassia County School District.

But due to inaccurate estimates by an architect, the school district found out it was facing a $15 million shortfall and wouldn’t be able to complete some projects.

In 2016, the school district brought a $14.9 million bond request to voters, but it was rejected. After that, a citizen’s committee was organized in 2017 to tour all school district facilities and essentially start from scratch with creating a list of needs.

In Minidoka County, a $21 million bond failed Tuesday. Even though 61.97 percent of voters said “yes” to the measure, it wasn’t enough to clear the required two-thirds supermajority.

“It’s, of course, disappointing, but we recognize that it’s been a long time since they’ve had to pass a bond,” Minidoka County School District Superintendent Ken Cox said Tuesday night.

Also, some of the school district’s bonds aren’t paid off yet, he said. Cox said school district officials will work to figure out what the community’s concerns are.

The bond would have paid for projects such as front entrance school security upgrades, new classrooms at four schools and a new agriculture facility.

The next steps after the bond failure will be an agenda item during a Monday school board meeting.

In Filer, voters rejected a $9.9 million bond. Again, the majority of voters — 63.42 percent — said “yes,” but it wasn’t enough to meet the supermajority requirement.

Bond money would have been used to build a second career-technical building at Filer High School, add classrooms at Filer Intermediate School, improve the parking area and traffic flow at Filer Elementary School, replace seats and lighting at Filer Middle School’s auditorium, and for future land purchases as the school district prepares for continued enrollment growth.

“Of course, we’re disappointed with the results but it gets us information to move forward,” Filer School District Superintendent John Graham said Tuesday night.

With more than 63 percent of voters supporting the measure, it’s “in the ballpark” of the 66.67 percent needed to meet the supermajority, he said.

“We need to find out how well we got the information out to the community,” Graham said, and what questions and concerns they have.

There are still classroom space issues at the intermediate and high schools that need to be addressed, he said.

A long-range facilities planning committee — which included community members — came up with a 20-year plan for facility needs.

With the “yes” votes Tuesday, “I think that’s positive in supporting overall that long-range plan,” Graham said, but noted feedback from voters will determine which direction the school district takes.

Elsewhere across the Magic Valley, the Twin Falls School District received 62.41 percent voter approval to renew its two-year, $5 million annual supplemental levy.

The additional $750,000 annually above what’s currently in place will be used to address a few areas: school security, curriculum upgrades (specifically, kindergarten through 12th-grade science, and high school math) and to set aside money to boost the general fund balance.

Final election results for the Jerome School District’s renewal of a two-year, $800,000 annual supplemental levy weren’t in by deadline at 11 p.m. Tuesday. But with 10 of 12 precincts reporting, 73.36 percent of voters had said “yes” to the measure.

A supplemental levy, which requires a simple majority vote to pass, is used to pay for basic school district operating expenses.

Murtaugh voters decided overwhelmingly — with 77.9 percent approval — to pass a $2 million bond for an athletic complex, including a synthetic track, new football field, and upgrades such as new bleachers and lighting.

The Gooding, Camas County and Hansen school districts all received voter approval for renewing their two-year supplemental levies in the same amount as previous years: $650,000 annually in Gooding, $300,000 annually in Camas County (a $250,000 annual supplemental levy and a $50,000 annual levy for music programs) and $290,000 annually in Hansen.

Harnessing the power of cow pies: Can dairy digesters turn cow poop to profit?

TWIN FALLS — One has only to take a sniff of the local dairy air to know that the Magic Valley has lots of cows.

So those with sensitive noses might be thrilled to know there is a way to turn a byproduct of milk production — manure — into electricity.

While large dairies are making more power from digesters than in the past, for many smaller local dairies, the machine isn’t a guaranteed path to turn poop to profit.

An anaerobic digester is a device that turns organic matter, such as cow manure, into energy. Between 2000 and 2014, the number of anaerobic digesters on U.S. farms rose from 15 to 214, with six of them in Idaho, the nation’s third-largest milk producer.

Five anaerobic digester projects at Magic Valley dairies sell electricity to Idaho Power. Together, they produce more than 14.5 megawatts, enough energy to power about 11,000 average homes, said Idaho Power spokesman Brad Bowlin.

On average, Big Sky Dairy produces 1.5 megawatts, Dry Creek produces 2.25 megawatts, Cargill produces 2.25 megawatts, AG Power produces 4.5 megawatts and Rock Creek Dairy produces 4 megawatts.

“A nice thing is they produce at a steady rate,” Bowlin said. “We can predict wind or solar a little, but with a biomass digester we can predict and factor that into our energy plan.”


Stan Craig looks at one of the engines that produces electricity at Cargill’s anaerobic digester at a dairy near Hansen in November 2010. 

But only a handful of farms are able to use the anaerobic digesters, Idaho Dairymen’s Association President Rick Naerebout said. Many local dairy farms aren’t big enough to make a profit with a digester.

“It’s not something the average dairy farmer even considers,” Naerebout said.

On average, more than 3,000 cows are needed to make a profit with a digester, said Jason Hansen, senior research economist at the Idaho National Laboratory. The technology is expensive, and it takes about four years for them to make a profit.

“There is significant potential in the state,” said Hansen, who wrote a study on the subject. “For 45 percent of large dairy farms across the state, this is a viable option.”

Though anaerobic digestion systems serve as an alternative to natural gases as well as reduce the odor from the manure, they don’t eliminate phosphate, potassium and nitrogen, Naerabout said. And they don’t solve water-quality problems like many dairy farmers’ current manure management plans, which use the manure for fertilizer.

“It’s not the silver bullet that everyone thinks it is,” Naerebout said. “Anaerobic digestion is viewed as a fix-all. It’s not a fool-proof manure management tool.”

If you do one thing

If you do one thing: A community dance will feature music by the Shadows Band from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Snake River Elks Lodge, 412 E. 200 S., Jerome. Admission is $5.

Celebs, coaches charged in college bribery scheme

BOSTON — Fifty people, including Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, were charged Tuesday in a scheme in which wealthy parents allegedly bribed college coaches and other insiders to get their children into some of the nation’s most selective schools.

Federal authorities called it the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department, with the parents accused of paying an estimated $25 million in bribes.

At least nine athletic coaches and 33 parents, many of them prominent in law, finance, fashion, the food and beverage industry and other fields, were charged. Dozens, including Huffman, the Emmy-winning star of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” were arrested by midday.

“These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in announcing the results of a fraud and conspiracy investigation code-named Operation Varsity Blues.

The coaches worked at such schools as Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Wake Forest, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles. A former Yale soccer coach pleaded guilty and helped build the case against others.

Two more of those charged — Stanford’s sailing coach and the college-admissions consultant at the very center of the scheme — pleaded guilty Tuesday in Boston. Others appeared in court and were released on bail.

Several defendants, including Huffman, were charged with conspiracy to commit fraud, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Huffman appeared in a Los Angeles courthouse where a magistrate judge said she could be released on a $250,000 bond. She is scheduled to appear in court March 29 in Boston.

No students were charged, with authorities saying that in many cases the teenagers were unaware of what was going on. Several of the colleges involved made no mention of taking any action against the students.

The scandal is certain to inflame longstanding complaints that children of the wealthy and well-connected have the inside track in college admissions — sometimes through big, timely donations from their parents — and that privilege begets privilege.

College consultants were not exactly shocked by the allegations.

“This story is the proof that there will always be a market for parents who have the resources and are desperate to get their kid one more success,” said Mark Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association.

The central figure in the scheme was identified as admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer, founder of the Edge College & Career Network of Newport Beach, California. He pleaded guilty.

Singer’s lawyer, Donald Heller, said his client intends to cooperate fully with prosecutors and is “remorseful and contrite and wants to move on with his life.”

Prosecutors said that parents paid Singer big money from 2011 through last month to bribe coaches and administrators to falsely make their children look like star athletes to boost their chances of getting accepted. The consultant also hired ringers to take college entrance exams for students, and paid off insiders at testing centers to correct students’ answers.

Some parents spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and some as much as $6.5 million to guarantee their children’s admission, officials said.

“For every student admitted through fraud, an honest and genuinely talented student was rejected,” Lelling said.

The investigation began when authorities received a tip about the scheme from someone they were interviewing in a separate case, Lelling said. He did not elaborate.

Authorities said coaches in such sports as soccer, sailing, tennis, water polo and volleyball took payoffs to put students on lists of recruited athletes, regardless of their ability or experience. Once they were accepted, many of these students didn’t participate in the sports.

The applicants’ athletic credentials were falsified with the help of staged photographs of them playing sports, or doctored photos in which their faces were pasted onto the bodies of genuine athletes, authorities said.

Prosecutors said parents were also instructed to claim their children had learning disabilities so that they could take the ACT or SAT by themselves and get extra time. That made it easier to pull off the tampering, prosecutors said.

A number of colleges moved quickly to fire or suspend the coaches and distance themselves from the scandal, portraying themselves as victims. Stanford fired the sailing coach, and USC dropped of its water polo coach and an athletic administrator. UCLA suspended its soccer coach, and Wake Forest did the same with its volleyball coach.

Loughlin, who was charged along with her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, appeared in the ABC sitcom “Full House” in the 1980s and ‘90s. Huffman was nominated for an Oscar for playing a transgender woman in the 2005 movie “Transamerica.” She also starred in the TV show “Sports Night” and appeared in such films as “Reversal of Fortune,” ‘’Magnolia” and “The Spanish Prisoner.”

Court documents said Huffman paid $15,000 that she disguised as a charitable donation so that her daughter could take part in the entrance-exam cheating scam.

Senate kills bill to shift dedicated funding from ISP to roads

BOISE — A bill that would have shifted roughly $17 million of a dedicated fund each year from state police to roadwork died in the Senate by one vote March 12.

House Bill 88, carried on the Senate floor by Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, would have taken the 5 percent of the Highway Distribution Account that Idaho State Police currently receives and put it instead toward the maintenance of local and state transportation infrastructure.

Brackett and other supporters of the bill argued that the bill would provide necessary funding to improve Idaho’s roads, and said they were confident the state could make up the difference to ISP with growth in revenue in the general fund.

“If we don’t have a good transportation system, our economy suffers,” Brackett said. “It’s an absolute necessity that we do have a good infrastructure system and good roads.”

Critics of the bill said they worried that making ISP dependent on the general fund for the money currently provided by the dedicated fund could draw funding away from education and other areas — and could hurt ISP in the event of an economic downturn.

Currently, 38 percent of the Highway Distribution Account goes to local units of government and 57 percent goes to the state highway account. The remaining 5 percent goes to ISP, which can only use the money for certain purposes, such as highway patrol.

Under the proposed bill, 40 percent of the fund would have gone to local jurisdictions and 60 percent would go to state highways.

Vocal opponents of the bill included Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, who serves as co-chairman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

“Dear senators, there are consequences to moving state police to the general fund,” Bair said. “All these additions to the general fund will cause the state of Idaho to be financially unstable when the next recession comes.

“Let’s get some guts,” Bair continued. “Let’s do the right thing and increase road user fees.”

Brackett said he wasn’t surprised at Bair’s concerns about the bill, but disputed arguments that the shift would jeopardize education funding or have significant consequences for ISP if the economy turns.

“It’s not a zero sum game. [The money will] come from growth,” Brackett said, adding: “Yes, we will have a downturn, but we’ll be better prepared for it than we have in the past.”

Another critic of the bill, Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said she wanted to support additional funding for roads and bridges, but would like to see the state come up with a long-term transportation plan first. Sen. Kelly Anthon, R-Burley, said he agreed with the need for a long-term plan, but felt the Legislature should act as soon as possible to address the immediate need for infrastructure maintenance.

“We need a long term strategic plan. We need one. The needs are dire,” Anthon said. “But ... when we don’t send enough money from Boise to fix the roads, it falls on the general fund of the local government.”

Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said he worried if the state wasn’t able to provide adequate funding for ISP, a greater burden would fall on local police.

“There’s no freebies for us in any of this,” Burgoyne said. “We can’t just say we’re going to move $17 million into transportation and it’s not going to have a negative consequence somewhere else for the taxpayer.”

The bill died on a 17-18 vote, with Sen. Kelly Anthon, R-Burley, Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, and Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, voting in favor of the shift. Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, voted against the bill.

Gretel Kauffman / COURTESY PHOTO