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School Vote May Be Indicator Of Future Of Bonds Kootenai School District Election Is First Following Rejection Of Lawsuit On School Funding

The tiny Kootenai School District will try to pass a $3.5 million school bond levy today - at a cost of nearly $32,000 for each student in the school.

A similar measure failed last year by about 20 votes.

But district officials believe that’s because residents still were paying off a 1991 elementary school bond and didn’t want to be tapped twice. That bond will be paid off this year.

Today’s election marks the first North Idaho bond levy attempt since a judge threw out a lawsuit by 17 Idaho school districts that sought state funding for local school buildings.

As a result, today’s election will be watched by parents, residents and district officials around the region who have battled for years over bond issues.

But it’s unclear what they will learn - the Kootenai district always has been different.

The area’s track record on school bond elections reveals little of the mind of Harrison voters. Nearly half the area’s taxes are paid by people who can’t vote in any election. And while some residents of other districts complain about growth in school staffing, the Kootenai district has cut its staffing by nearly 20 percent in the past 15 years.

The bond proposal on today’s ballot would cost property owners about $92.50 for every $50,000 of assessed value. Because the elementary school will be paid off this year, taxes actually would increase by only $49 per $50,000 of value if the bond passes.

The money would buy the 320-student district a new building for its 110 senior high students, who share a 40-year-old building with junior high students.

It would add seven classrooms, a new shop, a gymnasium and library, said Superintendent Ronald Hill.

“Right now, the library’s being used four periods a day as a classroom,” said school board member Fred Scheffelmaier. “If you let outside kids in, they’re actually disrupting a class.”

While some school districts are growing so fast they float bond measures every two or three years, bonds in Harrison are few and far between.

The Kootenai district joined other schools who sued the state in 1990, claiming Idaho did not adequately fund education. However, the district dropped out of the suit two years ago, in part because it had passed its most recent bond.

That lawsuit was dismissed by a judge late last month.

There have been only three bond elections in the Kootenai district in the past 15 years, with nearly every imaginable result.

In the early 1980s, a bid for a new elementary school failed miserably. In 1991, a similar measure passed overwhelmingly. Last year’s bond for a new high school fell 3.5 percent shy of the necessary two-thirds majority.

But the Kootenai district has one edge over other district’s seeking to pass bonds.

More than 43 percent of the district’s assessed property value is owned by people who live most of the year out-of-state. Those residents don’t get to vote, but still pay nearly half of the district’s taxes.

“You know, I’ve never heard one of them say anything about it,” said Jerry Kirkpatrick, owner of Rose’s Cafe in Harrison, who supports the bond issue. “They just quietly pay their taxes, I guess.”

Herb Nakata owns a summer home in Powderhorn Bay but lives most of the year in Pullman. At first blush, he said, he would probably vote against a school bond.

But he doesn’t mind that the decision is out of his hands.

“I made that choice when I moved there,” he said from his Washington home. “I don’t view that as too much of a negative.”

Nakata said the bond issue sounded expensive, but he knew too little about how the district managed its finances to raise any question.

District officials maintain they have a history of squeezing much out of every dime.

Since the early 1980s, the district has cut its entire payroll from 51 employees to 42 employees, Hill said. And Hill himself serves as principal of the elementary school.

“I believe now is as good a time as any to pass that bond,” said Scheffelmaier. “If we wait three to five years, it’s just going to cost us $5 to $6 million. And we don’t want that.”

, DataTimes

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