Small Idaho school districts with pressing building problems could get loans of up to $200,000 to make the fixes, under legislation that cleared the House today on a 38-31 vote. The loans would come from the Public Schools Facilities Cooperative Fund, a state fund that currently contains more than $16 million, and is tabbed only for building emergencies at school districts that can’t get their local voters to approve taxes for the repairs. It’s been tapped only twice, for the Plummer-Worley and Salmon school districts.
Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, sponsor of the bill, said small, rural school districts in Idaho have no place to turn to fix their building problems, which may not require all that much to fix. Under HB 578, districts with fewer than 2,000 students could apply to the State Board of Education for the loans, which would be only for projects "directly related to school security and safety or energy efficiency."
“The system we have is barely keeping these districts with their doors open, and they need more tools to handle the situations that come up,” Ringo told the House. “Here we have an opportunity. … This is a state that has many rural, small school districts and they’re struggling to get by, and I ask for your support to give them one more tool to be able to do it.” After much debate, the House passed Ringo’s bill; it now moves to a Senate committee.
The school facilities fund was set up nearly a decade ago in the wake of a lawsuit that successfully challenged the constitutionality of Idaho’s school-funding system, which requires local voters to agree by a two-thirds margin to raise their own property taxes in order to pass a bond to build a school. Even districts like Plummer-Worley that tap into the special fund, which originally was started with $25 million in state funds, have to pay the money back; their local property taxpayers are on the hook for it.
HB 578 requires that the small districts repay their loans within five years; if they don’t, their state funding allocations would be tapped to pay them back. The bill also includes a “sunset,” or expiration, of July 1, 2019.