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School Bond Elections May Be On The Move But Critics Fear More Bond Measures Would Fail On Standard Election Dates

School officials statewide are wondering whether the coming legislative session will bring any fixes for crowded and crumbling school buildings.

Gov. Phil Batt had hinted for months that he might consider some change in the two-thirds vote now required to pass a school construction bond.

But at a recent news conference, Batt said he’s decided against that. Instead, he’s proposing that all school bond elections be moved to the state’s four standard election dates.

School districts have resisted such a move in the past. The governor’s Economic Stimulus Committee, a group of business leaders that studied the state’s economic climate, recommended standard election dates in exchange for softening the two-thirds vote requirement.

Mike Friend, executive director of the Idaho Association of School Administrators, noted that when Coeur d’Alene held a bond vote during a general election Nov. 8, 1994, it failed. “We have looked at what they did prior to the election in terms of promoting their bond. They worked just as hard, if not harder.”

Batt said at his news conference earlier this month that he’s heard it both ways: that moving school bonds to standard election dates will make them easier to pass, and that it will make them harder to pass.

Either way, with more voters participating, “I think they’ll have more validity,” Batt said.

Sen. Tim Tucker, D-Porthill, said the election change without relaxing the two-thirds requirement would be a “backward step.”

“We’ll have fewer successful bond elections, and our facility needs will be further in arrears,” said Tucker, who serves on the Senate Education Committee.

A state study three years ago found that Idaho needs $700 million worth of school construction, just to bring aging and deteriorating buildings up to par.

Friend said his organization favors letting Idaho voters decide whether the two-thirds requirement should stand. Because it’s in the state Constitution, the only way it can be changed is by two-thirds votes of both houses of the Legislature and a majority vote of the electorate.

“We’d like to see the people have an opportunity to speak to it,” he said. Local education supporters are frustrated when they work hard to pass a bond, but a single “no” vote can cancel out two votes cast in favor.

Of 28 bond issues proposed to local voters across the state this year, just 10 passed.

“I do have a great deal of sympathy for those bonds which fail narrowly,” Batt said. “But the fact is a great majority come back and pass eventually.

“The state may be involved at some time in funding school construction. I don’t think we have the money to do it now,” he added.

Idaho makes it tough to get new schools built for two reasons: The state provides no money for construction, leaving it to local property taxpayers; and bonds need a two-thirds vote to pass.

Some lawmakers have suggested that the answer is for the state to share in the construction cost when local voters approve bonds. “I happen to favor a state program to assist,” House Speaker Mike Simpson, R-Blackfoot, said earlier this fall. “I want to look at it real seriously.”

Simpson said such a program would require the state to commit millions of dollars not just once, but every year. He said lawmakers held off last year, in deference to the governor’s $40 million property tax relief proposal.

A $15 million annual state appropriation would match about 20 percent of local spending for school construction, Simpson said. A $25 million commitment would match about a third.

Coeur d’Alene School Board Chairman Ken Burchell said he thought that was a good idea, but that it might not go far enough. “I don’t think that we will get any very strong support from the taxpayers until such time as the Legislature gives us some genuine tax reform in this area. And that means spreading the responsibility for the support of the schools more broadly.”

Tucker said he thinks a program of state assistance with school construction has a better chance of becoming law than a change in the two-thirds vote requirement.

State Superintendent of Schools Anne Fox has also raised concerns about funds for school construction. But her proposal for an extra sales tax earmarked for school buildings has been unpopular with lawmakers.

, DataTimes

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