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Wendell school bond

Wendell School District superintendent Greg Lowe, right, listens to district maintenance supervisor Ken Pressley in March 2014 at Wendell High School.

WENDELL — After four failed bond attempts, the Wendell School District was running low on options to pay for school repairs.

Over two years starting in 2014, the majority of voters said “yes” during each election. But it wasn’t enough to clear the required two-thirds supermajority: 66.67 percent.

It meant needed facility projects — such as replacing a leaky roof at the Wendell High School gymnasium — were delayed. And others weren’t tackled at all.

Wendell and other school districts across Idaho have struggled for years with the supermajority requirement.

“Communities that have aging buildings sometimes face an uphill battle to get that vote,” said Brady Dickinson, director of operations for the Twin Falls School District.

The Idaho Constitution requires a two-thirds voter approval to pass a bond measure. For years, local government officials have said that requirement is too high and prevents critical projects from moving forward.

House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding says this requirement in the Idaho Constitution is antiquated and that the threshold should be reduced to 60 percent.

The House Local Government Committee approved Erpelding’s bill on Wednesday.

Constitutional amendments must pass with a two-thirds majority in both bodies and then win a simple majority in a statewide vote come November.

A constitutional amendment is a long process, said Wendell School District Superintendent Greg Lowe. “The legislators can’t just do that on their own.”

And the topic has come up before at the legislature, Dickinson said. “Usually, it doesn’t make it too far.”

The legislature has a strong commitment to protecting property owners, he said, which is understandable.

Cassia County School District spokeswoman Debbie Critchfield said she’s encouraged by the renewed discussion about lowering the supermajority requirement.

It has been a regular topic for Idaho school districts for years, she said, and has been supported by the Idaho School Boards Association.

But at the legislative level, “typically, we were told it was a dead conversation and that it wasn’t worth pursuing,” said Critchfield, who’s also a member of the Idaho Board of Education.

In Wendell, there’s a long history of bond election struggles. About a decade ago, a $1.5 million measure for a new agriculture building failed by just two votes.

“That was disappointing,” Lowe said.

And for two years starting in March 2014, there were four failed bond attempts. School officials decided on a different approach to addressing facility problems.

It brought a supplemental levy renewal — with a request for additional money — to voters in May 2016 with a paired down list of projects. It only required a simple majority vote and it passed.

But not all bonds in Wendell have failed. There was 77 percent approval for a $9.8 million measure in 2010 to build a new elementary school.

In Twin Falls, voters approved two large school bonds within the last decade — $48.7 million in 2006 to build Canyon Ridge High School and nearly $74 million in 2014 to build three new schools.

But the measure three years ago passed by only 40 votes.

Bonds are a necessity for building projects, district spokeswoman Eva Craner said, adding school officials appreciate the community’s support.

The last time a ballot measure failed in the Twin Falls School District was in the mid-1990s. The district was seeking a bond to build a technology center and new alternative school.

In the Cassia County School District, all of the last five bonds received more than 50 percent voter approval. And some that failed would have passed if only a simple majority was needed.

“That supermajority is a very high threshold for support,” Critchfield said.

She said she understands and appreciates why there’s a high bar for community support.

But there needs to be a balance, she said, with recognizing school district needs.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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