MERIDIAN — West Ada School District trustee Mike Vuittonet frequently hears from residents that Treasure Valley’s growth should “pay for itself.”
In West Ada, property owners have been paying off $234 million of bond debt dating back to 2002.
Idaho is one of a handful of states that uses bonds and levies — property tax increases that must be approved by voters — as the only way to fund new construction in school districts. That means local taxpayers have to foot the bill for most new school construction, often with interest.
With West Ada staff anticipating another bond on the horizon — to fund a new elementary school in south Meridian — Vuittonet is worried voters are going to reach the end of their generosity.
“At some point, bond fatigue is going to hit us,” he said.
Earlier this year, the West Ada school board passed a resolution asking the state to start paying half of school districts’ bond payments for new facilities, using sales tax revenue from new construction.
The Idaho School Boards Association chooses which resolutions to lobby at the Legislature. Last year, West Ada brought forward a similar proposal, but it didn’t make the cut.
This year, the ISBA executive board, on Sept. 7, gave the revised resolution a “no recommendation.” That might not sound great for West Ada, but it’s actually progress — it means the board neither recommends, nor not recommends, the resolution, according to Quinn Perry, the association’s policy and government affairs director. She said the executive board wanted to “punt the vote” to the school board trustees at the annual ISBA convention in November and let them decide.
Perry said West Ada officials addressed all of the board’s concerns from last year, calling this year’s convention a “new chance” for the resolution.
“I think there is some movement,” Vuittonet said.
The Kuna School District is also looking for new funding sources for school construction. The district is proposing a resolution that would make Idaho school districts eligible to collect impact fees. Other taxing districts, such as cities and highway districts, collect these fees from developers when a new project is built, and use the revenue to cover some of the capital costs of keeping up with growth. State law doesn’t allow school districts, however, to collect impact fees.
The ISBA executive board issued a “do not pass” recommendation for Kuna School District’s resolution. Perry said IBSA board members were confused by some aspects of the resolution and were concerned it would require each district to jump through a bunch of hoops before they could collect impact fees. She said members also wondered if the resolution would “actually do what they hoped it would accomplish,” because of the state’s strict requirements surrounding impact fee collection.
Kuna School District’s resolution asks that the definition of “public facilities” in Idaho law is changed to include public schools.
The goal of the resolution is to help fund the school district, mitigate the property tax burden of Kuna residents and create a method that encourages growth to pay for growth, the Kuna Melba News reported.
Kuna School Board Vice Chairwoman Joy Thomas said Kuna still plans to bring the resolution forward at the convention.
“I really feel like it got the ‘do not pass’ because there was a lack of education,” Thomas told the Idaho Press on Friday. “People don’t understand how it works.”
Thomas said she is working on a frequently asked questions page about impact fees to clear up misconceptions before the November meeting.
Kuna’s resolution has support from local school districts — Caldwell, Middleton, Nampa and Twin Falls school districts cosponsored it. The West Ada school board on Aug. 27 voted against cosponsoring it.
No other districts cosponsored West Ada’s resolution.
If the state paid for half of school construction, Vuittonet said it would be easier for districts to pass bonds in the Treasure Valley and across the state.
This year, some Idaho school districts struggled to gain the voter support needed to pass bonds, which require a two-thirds supermajority to pass.
Voters in the Bonneville Joint School District 93 voted against a proposed $42.7 million bond on Aug. 27. The bond, receiving a little more than 40% approval, would have paid for a new $19 million elementary school and for additions and renovations at two high schools, the Post Register reported.
The elections results showed that taxpayers “are simply tired of being hounded at every turn for more new bonds,” Halli Stone, spokeswoman for the D93 Citizens group that opposed the bond, told the Post Register. District 93 has approved three bonds for new schools, totaling $112.8 million dollars, since the bond for Summit Hills Elementary School was passed in 2012.
Two votes made the difference in the Vallivue School District’s $65.3 million bond, which passed in March. The bond will pay for a third middle school, renovations of Vallivue Middle School and building maintenance.
Voters in Minidoka County and Kellogg voted against a $21 million bond and a $7.9 million bond in March, respectively. Minidoka’s bond would have paid for at least 14 new classrooms across the district and front entrance security projects at several schools, Idaho Education News reported, while Kellogg’s bond would have paid for additions at two schools, repairs, and safety and technology upgrades throughout the district.
“For small school districts it is just really, really tough,” Vuittonet said.
West Ada is the state’s largest school district, in one of the fastest-growing areas of the country. The district, with an enrollment of 40,000, has built six new schools in the last decade. Vuittonet said 100% of the cost burden of new school construction falls on local property owners.
“It is a huge issue — a huge burden,” he said.
In West Ada, homeowners have been paying off $234 million of debt from bonds passed in 2002, 2005, 2015 and 2018. With buildings from the 2018 bond still under construction, district staff are already anticipating putting another bond in front of voters next spring, paying for an elementary school to relieve crowding at Hillsdale Elementary, which is only three years old but was already more than 150 students over capacity at the end of the 2018-19 school year.Patty Bowen is the Meridian Press reporter. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @pattybowenMP.