Legislation providing Idaho public schools up to $2 billion in state funding to improve or replace old, dysfunctional buildings over the next decade was introduced Thursday.
Highlighted by Gov. Brad Little during his State of the State address in early January, House Bill 521 enjoys widespread support among members of the House of Representatives and was introduced by House Speaker Mike Moyle (R-Star). The bill awaits a full public hearing in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee.
The complex legislation provides $150 million in new spending annually for school facilities that would be generated by the state’s purchase of a 10-year bond worth $1 billion. The proceeds would be shared among school districts for facilities needs. Additionally, facilities spending would include $50 million in lottery revenue redirected to a new school district facilities fund and $25 million in sales tax revenue added to the facilities fund.
The need for facilities spending was identified by Idaho Education Association members as one of the top needs for public schools coming into the legislative session. In an October survey of IEA members, 33 percent of participants said their school building was not adequate to support effective teaching and learning.
“This is a very important bill to our members because of what it potentially means for creating better learning environments for Idaho’s students,” said Mike Journee, IEA communications director in a statement to media on Thursday. “Idaho is finally looking for a solution to this challenging problem, thanks to Gov. Little’s leadership. Our members are engaged on this issue, have a seat at the table for the discussion and are very happy the conversation has finally begun.”
Similarly, an October 2023 poll commissioned by IEA members shows that 80% of likely voters say the state should fund facilities needs if local voters refuse to do so. The poll also showed that 94% of voters agree that “Idaho students have a right to safe, secure, and modern school facilities.”
The legislation includes several requirements for school districts to be eligible for the funding, many of which are provisions included to improve the bill’s chances for approval by lawmakers. They include:
- Removal of the August election date for school district elections, leaving only the May and November ballot dates in place.
- Requiring school districts to submit a 10-year facilities plan and agreeing to a five-day school week, unless four-day schools meet minimum contract and instructional day requirements set by the State Board of Education
- Requiring districts’ compliance with the state’s anti-critical race theory law and agree that their job applicants will not be required to sign “written diversity statements.
The bill also would sunset the state’s bond/levy equalization program, which primarily helps economically disadvantaged school districts offset the cost of bonds and levies.
While far from perfect, IEA leaders see the legislation as an important step forward for creating better parity on the facility front for districts that have difficulty passing facilities bonds at the local level.
“For far too long, Idaho policymakers have ignored the daunting backlog of facilities needs leaving too many of Idaho’s students literally out in the cold,” said IEA President Layne McInelly in response to Gov. Little’s announcement of the plan in January. “Requiring supermajorities of local voters to approve bonds for school construction and forcing school districts to rely on voter-approved levies for basic operational needs creates huge inequities for less-affluent communities that cannot afford to tax themselves.”