September 5, 2005 in Idaho

Schools districts head to court

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer
 

BOISE – In Wallace, school construction worries are over. A brand-new $7.2 million junior-senior high school went up with the help of a $3.1 million grant from the state plus federal forest funds, easing the burden on local taxpayers and persuading them to vote 85 percent in favor of the school-construction tax levy.

That’s why Wallace has dropped out of the long-running school funding lawsuit that’s headed for a showdown in the Idaho Supreme Court in two weeks.

“Our deficiency had disappeared with that new school,” said Superintendent Reid Straabe. “I guess I don’t have an opinion about how it’s impacting other districts or whatever else. I’m just happy that we were able to build a new school here in Wallace.”

That’s what the state is counting on in its legal fight against a group of school districts that sued over inadequate funding for school construction. In 2001, District Judge Deborah Bail ruled Idaho’s system for funding schoolhouses unconstitutional, because it leaves the poorest districts unable to afford to provide safe schools for kids. The state is appealing that ruling to the Idaho Supreme Court, arguing that some of the same districts that sued no longer have problems – so there should be no more lawsuit.

“What is at issue is whether the system is adequate for the plaintiff districts, in our view,” said Deputy Attorney General Michael Gilmore, who is arguing the case for the state. “It is our position that most of the districts that are plaintiffs no longer have a case.”

Things look different from the Lake Pend Oreille School District in Sandpoint, where there have been no state grants, no bond elections, and no new buildings – though some schools are overflowing with students. “If the question is do we need renovated or new facilities, yes, we do, because they’re aging,” said Superintendent Mark Berryhill. “To some degree, we’re piecemealing and patching up where we need some major overhauls.”

Lake Pend Oreille is among 21 districts still in the lawsuit. It didn’t qualify for the temporary $10 million state grant program that benefited Wallace. That program ended when the money ran out in 2002. Only about a half-dozen of Idaho’s 113 school districts got grants; Wallace’s was the largest.

“I’ve always felt that some of the legislation that was passed was designed specifically to pick off parties to the lawsuit by taking care of their problems,” said state Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. She noted that Boundary County, which is in her district, was among those that qualified for a grant.

However, Keough said, “It’s a system problem. It’s great that we figured out how to be partners and fix the most egregious problems that exist today, but unless we fix the system, we’re going to be back here again in X amount of years when districts aren’t able to take care of their issues.”

Idaho traditionally has left the full cost of school construction to local property taxpayers, who must vote by a two-thirds supermajority to raise their own taxes in order to build a school. The temporary $10 million grant program for districts with building safety problems was a departure from that. Since it ended, it’s been replaced by a new plan for the state to subsidize part of the interest costs for all new school construction bonds – but lawmakers opted to shift money to do that from schools’ existing lottery funds, which had gone for things like new roofs.

“It took away a fund of money that some districts were using for maintenance, which kind of exacerbates the downward spiral and continues the problem,” Keough said.

Robert Huntley, the former Idaho Supreme Court justice who is representing the school districts in the case, wrote in court papers, “All parties agree that there have been buildings replaced or repaired over the years, and that other buildings are discovered to have decayed and deteriorated in the meantime to the point where they become dangerous buildings.”

Huntley and the Idaho Schools for Equal Educational Opportunity, the school districts that sued, contend the state should provide a substantial match to all voter-approved school bonds, plus provide more funding for building maintenance so schools won’t deteriorate in the first place. That’s in line with what many states do – Idaho’s combination of the two-thirds vote for school bonds and its lack of state subsidies make it one of the toughest states in the nation in which to build a school.

“It’s sad that right at the time Judge Bail made her decision in 2001, we had a $300 million surplus, and the Legislature gave it away rather than fix the schools,” Huntley said.

Legislative leaders have been strongly resistant in recent years to investing tens of millions each year into local school construction – though GOP U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson unsuccessfully championed that very idea when he was speaker of the Idaho House.

Current House Speaker Bruce Newcomb worries that funding school construction would just mean taking money away from educational programs, because no one wants to pay more in taxes. “What happens is the programs suffer,” he said.

In part because of staunch resistance from legislative leaders like Newcomb, the Legislature refused to comply with Bail’s 2001 order – even when a task force convened by Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and state schools Superintendent Marilyn Howard recommended a negotiated settlement – and instead passed a law aimed at turning the tables in the lawsuit and making the school districts into the defendants. The law sought to make courts order no-vote local property tax increases if school districts didn’t fix their own schools without the state’s help.

Bail ruled that law unconstitutional, and the Idaho Supreme Court agreed with her.

Now, the heart of the issue is back before the courts: Whether Idaho’s Legislature is meeting the state constitution’s requirement that it provide for schools. Bail said that when it comes to buildings, lawmakers need to do more.

Gilmore said the Legislature has made two important changes as a direct result of the lawsuit: It’s moved, at least in a small way, into subsidizing interest costs for school bonds, and it’s given the state’s building safety division enforcement power to close unsafe schools.

“Everybody wants kids in safe schools – that’s important,” he said. But the state takes the position that just because some districts have unsafe schoolhouses doesn’t mean the whole funding system must be changed.

“No system of funding can guarantee that no unsafe condition will ever arise in any Idaho school building,” Gilmore wrote in court papers.

And if other building safety problems cropped up in the future in other districts, he said, “We would hope the system would correct it. If not, somebody could bring a lawsuit in the future.”


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