Lakeland School District, proud of its fiscally conservative reputation, appeared Tuesday night to be narrowly losing a $9.3 million bond issue aimed at keeping pace with growth.
With a third of the ballots counted, the levy to build a junior high school, add classrooms and remodel facilities was drawing a 62 percent “yes” vote - shy of the supermajority needed for passage.
A separate $650,000 bond levy to start a hot lunch program also appeared to be failing.
Of all the school districts in Kootenai County, Lakeland has the best track record for passing bond levies - doing so seven out of nine times over the past 34 years.
Last year, it also had the fastest rate of growth in its student population as the Rathdrum area became immensely popular with home-seekers.
A lack of state money for school construction pitted neighbor against neighbor in the largely rural district, where new schools are needed most.
The same taxpayer issue doomed three bond issues in the last two years in the Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls school districts. Those districts are trying to pass construction levies again this spring.
“There’s quite a little battle out here, to be very blunt about it,” said Larry Clark, a developer who bankrolled an aggressive campaign against the Lakeland bond issue.
Clark argued in fliers, newspaper inserts and signs that Lakeland homeowners could not afford the multimillion-dollar bond issue because of already high taxes.
Lakeland has the highest overall tax rate of the three school districts. Lakeland school officials tried to structure the bond issue so the rate for school facilities, $2.19 per $1,000 of taxable property value, did not go up.
Clark still thought the total bond amount could have been trimmed by $2 million. “We’re only going to fight bond issues we think are excessive,” he said early Tuesday.
His sentiments were shared by many voters at the polls.
“They haven’t thought it out good enough for me,” said Shirley Miller as she left Betty Kiefer Elementary School, where she voted. “In three years, they’ll want a new high school. Let them build it (a junior high and high school) together.”
Miller, the parent of a junior high student, said she thought the city should do more to help pay for new schools.
Many people voting after work Tuesday appeared to favor the bond issue, despite the cost.
“You either build it now or build it later,” said Steve Harper, the father of a sixth-grader. Harper also voted for the hot lunch program, calling it “at least as important as a new school.”
Clark said he would not have fought the Lakeland bond issue if the state would help pay for school construction.
Despite several bills to do just that, the Legislature ended its session Friday without coming to the aid of property owners, who shoulder the entire burden of funding schools.
Proposals to establish a matching state fund for school construction or lower the two-thirds voter approval requirement for bond issues never mustered enough support to become law.
In Coeur d’Alene, school officials decided that on their third attempt to build a new junior high school, they would not seek a bond levy.
Instead, they are holding a May election for a two-year $10 million school plant facilities levy, which only requires a 55 percent “yes” vote to pass. The difference is the district will collect $5 million from property owners each year instead of borrowing $10 million up-front to be paid off over several years.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Lakeland’s bond issue