Idaho bill to fund school facilities could be introduced soon. Here’s what we know

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An Idaho lawmaker said legislators have drafted a bill that would invest $1 billion into school facilities over the course of a decade, half the amount of funding Gov. Brad Little proposed in his State of the State address.

The proposal would also eliminate August as an election date — one of three remaining that school districts can run bond and levy elections — and lower the individual income tax rate from 5.8% to 5.695%, Republican Rep. Stephanie Mickelsen said Thursday during a virtual forum hosted by the Idaho Business for Education and Idaho Statesman.

Lawmakers said the proposal is still being negotiated and could change before it’s introduced, which would likely be next week.

“To be able to get a bill across the finish line, they had to take what they could get,” Mickelsen said during the event. “The governor’s office was hopeful that once we put this process in place, ... then we will be able to make future investments in education in a way different than we have in the past.”

Little announced during his State of the State address last month that he wanted to make funding for school facilities “priority No. 1.”

His $2 billion proposal followed a Statesman and ProPublica series that showed how Idaho’s restrictive school funding policies and the Legislature’s reluctance to make significant investments in school facilities have challenged teachers and impacted student learning. Little’s office declined to comment on the draft bill.

During his address, Little cited the two news organizations’ reporting, which showed schools across Idaho with leaky roofs, discolored drinking water, stained ceiling tiles and antiquated heating and cooling systems. Hundreds of students, teachers and administrators shared photos, videos and stories with the publications 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 Idaho requires two-thirds of voters for a bond to pass. Most 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 altogether.

Idaho lawmakers have also discussed a proposal that would start the process to lower the two-thirds threshold for bonds. That proposal also hasn’t been introduced yet this legislative session.

In Salmon’s elementary school, which is still in use, cracks have appeared in the floors and a drain in the kitchen occasionally backs up with sewage.
In Salmon’s elementary school, which is still in use, cracks have appeared in the floors and a drain in the kitchen occasionally backs up with sewage.

Funding would be based on attendance

The updated school facilities proposal would distribute the funding based on average daily attendance, so larger school districts would get more funding, while smaller rural school districts would get less, said Mickelsen, an Idaho Falls Republican. That could leave districts more in need of funding with less aid from the state.

Mickelsen said that was a concern for several legislators, and some of the smaller school districts were “a little bit disappointed.” But she said the state didn’t have a lot of options for how it could distribute the money in a way that is “equal, uniform and thorough.” West Ada, the largest district in the state, would get about $136 million under this proposal, she said.

“I don’t think we necessarily wanted to do it that way,” she said. “That was the only way they could get the bill across the finish line.”

If there’s an additional pot of money next year, she said the state would have to look at how it can help smaller, rural school districts that have a smaller tax base. Some rural districts have struggled for decades to pass bonds to repair and replace their aging buildings.

“I definitely think that you’re still going to have to make some additional investments in these rural school districts that have really been holding on by a thread in some instances,” she said.

The bill will likely be introduced next week in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, Mickelsen said.