Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, wants the state to set up an emergency fund for school districts before collapsing roofs or faulty electrical wiring kill children.
The chairman of the Senate Education Committee is drafting a bill that would create an emergency fund to help school districts pay for crucial building repairs when bond levies fail and no other funding means are available.
After the Sandpoint High School auditorium roof collapsed in December 1996, Schroeder and Sandpoint Rep. Shawn Keough attempted to revise the acceptable snow load school roofs could bear. But the price tag killed the measure.
To avoid a similar defeat, Schroeder isn’t tying money to the emergency fund bill. Instead, he wants lawmakers to pass the concept and then ask for $1 million to $2 million next year to establish the fund.
“My concern is for the safety of the kids and staff,” Schroeder said. “If that roof had fallen in, it would be an entirely different debate if kids had been killed. But we shouldn’t have to wait until that happens.”
The two-thirds supermajority requirement needed to pass school bonds has made it difficult for school districts such as Bonner County’s to repair unsafe schools or ease classroom overcrowding.
House Education Committee Chairman Fred Tilman, R-Boise, is co-sponsoring bipartisan legislation this year to lower the school bond requirement to 60 percent. The topic is expected to ignite much debate.
“We can build prisons with safe roofs - why can’t we do that for our children?” Schroeder asked.
Bonner County School Superintendent Roy Rummler commended Schroeder for his efforts but said the state needs to take a more permanent role in maintaining safe schools.
Besides reducing the supermajority requirement for bond elections, Rummler said, the state should match money local communities or school districts raise for repairs or new buildings. Idaho doesn’t provide state money for building schools.
“We should be trying to take care of our investment,” Rummler said. “When school buildings collapse, that’s not helping out taxpayers much.
“We could save taxpayers considerable money if maintenance was happening,” he added.
Schroeder said he expects his bill to raise questions of fairness, especially from school districts where voters have passed bond levies to fix decrepit schools.
“Probably it isn’t fair,” he said. “But this is an emergency fund because we have concern for the safety of the kids.”
Post Falls School Superintendent Dick Harris said the fund would be a good life jacket for school districts facing crises.
Harris said his district probably wouldn’t qualify for the emergency funds because its problem is overcrowding, not an emergency situation such as collapsing roofs. But he still supports the bill’s intent.
However, Harris said he hopes the bill doesn’t distract attention from efforts to lower the supermajority or to have the state provide matching funds to districts.
“My major thrust is to get the Legislature to recognize a bigger and broader picture,” Harris said.
In March, Post Falls will ask voters to pass a $20 million bond to ease the overcrowding caused by a flood of 900 new students in the district since 1992. This is the district’s third attempt in four years to pass a bond.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THE PLAN Under the proposal, the Legislature would create an emergency fund for school districts this year. Next year, it would consider putting money into the fund. After that, a governor-appointed board would determine which school districts had showed enough emergency needs to be eligible for the cash.