School Disparity Idaho Schools Chronically Underfunded Only State In Nation With Two Restraints On School Funding

Second of two parts

The state of Idaho is giving school districts a test that’s difficult to pass.

Idaho is one of only 10 states that provide no money for school construction. It is one of three nationwide that requires construction bond issues to pass by a supermajority - two-thirds of voters.

It is the only state with both funding constraints which, legislators argue, keeps taxes low.

But the combination has many Idaho school districts in desperate straits.

Classes are held in condemned and collapsing buildings, some infested with rats. Other districts, like Post Falls, have resorted to double-shifting to handle overcrowding.

“We don’t have any politician anywhere that has to get 66.6 percent of the vote, so it doesn’t make sense that a small group can kill an issue that the majority is for,” said Post Falls Superintendent Richard Harris.

Next spring, Post Falls will attempt for the fourth time to pass a bond for a new high school. Two bond elections in the past four years have failed, despite more than 60 percent voter approval.

The district is double-shifting in junior high, which means some students come to school before 7 a.m., and some aren’t able to participate in sports because of disrupted gym schedules.

Post Falls is not alone. Last year, the Genesee School District missed the two-thirds approval mark by seven votes.

In Washington, where Harris worked before coming to Post Falls, there’s a 60 percent majority approval for bonds. Districts there also are eligible to receive half of the construction money from state funds generated from the sale of timber on public lands.

“It’s an incentive because the cost to the taxpayer is cut in half of what it would be, where here the taxpayer foots the whole bill,” Harris said.

Property taxpayers tell school officials they’re frustrated that they carry the entire burden of building schools.

“We have landowners with hundreds of acres of land, and they feel they take the brunt of it. I don’t blame them,” said Sharon Weisman, principal of Bonners Ferry Junior High.

Post Falls and Bonners Ferry are among the more than 20 districts suing the state, claiming it has failed to maintain a thorough and uniform system of public education mandated in the U.S. Constitution.

Similar fights have been debated and won by school districts in 24 states.

State financial assistance for school facilities varies in 40 different states. Most of Idaho’s neighbors in the Pacific Northwest use their natural resources to help fund construction of schools.

In Wyoming, mineral royalties from school-owned lands support construction projects, while in Alaska, it’s oil.

Montana has restricted its subsidy program to districts poorer than the state average.

One program in North Carolina specifically targets poorer districts with critical needs.

Colorado requires school districts to set aside $202 per pupil each year for long-range capital needs.

But as state tax collection in Idaho has grown over the years, the money has been spent everywhere but on school construction.

In 1913, local government collected 88 percent of the taxes, while state government collected just 12 percent. Today, with the addition of income and sales tax, state government collects 70 percent of taxes, while local government draws just 30 percent.

Until the 1940s, only 12 states provided any financial assistance for school construction. Now there are 40.

By 1991, state funding for school facilities nationwide totaled more than $3 billion, according to the General Accounting Office. That’s about 20 percent of all funds used to build schools.

Robert Huntley, attorney for the Idaho school districts that are suing the state, suggests several options, including lifting the supermajority bond requirement.

Earlier this year, Gov. Phil Batt hinted he may recommend a change in the two-thirds supermajority requirement.

Sen. Jack Riggs, R-Coeur d’Alene, said Friday he would support lowering the approval level to 60 percent.

Rep. Hilde Kellogg of Post Falls said she would support discussing the issue in committee.

But she noted that voters do pass bonds - like in Kellogg - when voter trust is there.

“When they see critical need, they will pass bonds,” Kellogg said. “You can’t have people seeing administrations squander money and expect them to tax themselves.”

Rep. Jim Clark, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he believes the success of the Kellogg’s School District bond may be due to the choice of funding options given voters on the ballot.

“Maybe the menu option is the solution to our problems,” Clark said. “I think the test will be the upcoming vote in Post Falls.”

The Post Falls bond election is scheduled for March 24.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Passing bonds and levies in Idaho

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