As school districts prepare their wish lists for the upcoming legislative session, one common theme has resurfaced: the struggle to build enough schools to keep up with growth.
Just look at the West Ada School District in Meridian, which is based in one of the fastest-growing parts of the country and has 40,000 students. The district has held two bond elections since 2015, needing funding for five new schools and four school expansions.
Thankfully, both passed, but trustees worry about bond fatigue. This year, West Ada’s school board passed a resolution asking lawmakers to change how school bonds are repaid. The proposal asks the state to cover half of school districts’ bond payments. That way, bonds would get repaid faster — reducing interest payments and lowering the property tax burden on residents.
Over in the Kuna School District, another idea has resurfaced, with support from four other school districts. Their pitch is to allow school districts to use impact fees — a tool other states use for school construction. It’s an idea our own state has wrestled with for years.
These are one-time fees paid by developers to offset the growth impacts of that new development. Cities use impact fees to pay for new parks, build fire stations, buy police cars, expand roads, and so on. Counties and highway districts also use impact fees. Yet, school districts in Idaho can’t. So, the burden of keeping up with growth by building new schools falls solely on property taxpayers. Even though developers sometimes donate land to school districts, or sell it at a lower rate, the school district still must pass a bond to fund construction.
The idea of using impact fees for schools is a divisive one. In fact, our editorial board didn’t unanimously agree that it’d be a good move.
The dissenting side of the argument says charging impact fees for schools will only hurt homebuyers and dampen the housing market. The developers will pass down that added fee to the buyer, tacking on another $3,000 to $5,000 (or whatever the fee may be) to the price of a new home. This could especially hurt young families looking to buy their first home or upgrade to a bigger house as they have kids. Record-breaking housing prices in the Treasure Valley are already a concern, especially because local wages aren’t keeping up; we should not be piling on to that with more impact fees.
The side of the argument that supports impact fees for schools says growth should pay for growth. This is where the majority of our editorial board landed. Say a widow has lived in the same house for 50 years. Should she have to see a bump in her property taxes every time a new school in her district is built? Or, should the people in the new homes pay a slightly higher home price to support the needed school development brought on by growth? All property owners will still contribute to the operation of those schools, but that impact fee bump will help districts grow as the population grows. Even if that homebuyer doesn’t have kids, supporting schools is an important responsibility of, and benefit to, all of society.
Our support for this fee is not an attempt to somehow punish newcomers. As we saw in the Idaho Press’ front page story on Sept. 27, most movers in Idaho are actually from Idaho. The No. 1 county sending new residents to Ada County, for example, is neighboring Canyon County. With how desirable this area is, and relatively affordable compared to other markets, an impact fee would not stop the flood of demand.
There are hiccups to explore when it comes to allowing school districts to use impact fees for new schools. But we urge lawmakers: Explore it. We can’t keep relying on school bond elections to pay for new schools, not with the rapid growth we’re experiencing. Educating our kids is one of the most important functions of our tax dollars, and schools are overwhelmed. Look at Hillsdale Elementary in Meridian. It’s only 3 years old, but, as of spring 2019, it’s already 150 students over capacity. The district will need to pass another bond to relieve the crowding.
Passing bonds in Idaho is a steeper challenge than in most states. Idaho requires a two-thirds’ majority for a bond to pass.
“At some point, bond fatigue is going to hit us,” West Ada school board member Mike Vuittonet told the Meridian Press.
In some districts, it already has. In August, voters rejected six of seven school bond issues statewide, Idaho Education News reported. In three of those elections, the bonds had more than 50% support.
Our state can’t keep limping along when it comes to giving school districts the money they need to fund facilities. Finding another funding solution for schools, be it impact fees or West Ada’s pitch for the state to help pay off bonds, must be a top priority in the 2020 legislative session.