By Chris Parri – IEA Political Director
May 25, 2023
Bond and levy elections are extraordinarily important for Idaho’s public schools — and for many districts, last week’s school elections across the state brought good news for their students and the educators who teach in them. But the simple fact that I had to write that sentence at all is evidence of just how broken public school finances are in this state.
May 16’s bond and levy elections put more than $730 million dollars in school funding on the line through ballot measures in 16 districts across the state. For many of these districts — and, in turn, the educators they employ — it was a high stakes election that speaks volumes about Idaho’s decades of chronically underfunding our public schools.
Unfortunately, policymakers’ lack of political will to properly fund public schools means these make-or-break bond and levy elections are likely the new normal. Bond and levy funding is becoming increasingly fundamental to district operations, as opposed to ‘supplemental’ to the funds the State of Idaho appropriates to public school classrooms. The vote on May 16 came after a similarly high stakes school election in March where districts asked local taxpayers for more than $1 billion worth of bonds and levies — needed funding they are not receiving from the state — again, with mixed results at the polls.
In all, only three of the 19 ballot measures around the state in last week’s election failed. On the face of it, that seems like a pretty good night for public schools. However, in terms of dollar amount, voters rejected the vast majority of school district needs — and those losses will have major impacts on those schools, their students and the educators who work in them.
West Ada School District’s unsuccessful 10-year, $500 million facilities levy accounted for most of those losses. It was the largest local school funding measure in Idaho history, but it garnered just over 42% approval, far short of the 55% needed for a facilities levy in Idaho. It would have funded 12 major construction projects for the state’s fastest growing district and renovations at all 58 West Ada schools.
Bonneville School District in East Idaho, another big, fast growing district with overcrowded schools, fell achingly short of reaching the required supermajority vote needed for their 17-year, $34.5 million bond measure.
West Bonner County School District in North Idaho also barely missed majority approval of its two-year $9.4 million levy — which represents one-third of the district’s annual budget. Program cuts and educator layoffs are all but certain with the loss.
Now, some of the good news.
Idaho Education Association members in Coeur d’Alene helped to successfully rally the community around a two-year, $50 million supplemental levy, which represented 25% of the district’s entire budget. Passage of this levy with nearly 64% of the vote was a huge win for IEA’s brothers and sisters in Coeur d’Alene after voters rejected a permanent $25 million-a-year levy in March. Hundreds of educator jobs were on the line and extracurricular programs like sports and music would’ve been excised from local schools.
Also, Vallivue School District’s $78 million bond measure passed with just over 71% of the vote. A successful bond vote in Idaho requires a two-thirds supermajority (66.6%) for approval. With this funding, the district will build two new elementary schools to alleviate overcrowding at six of seven district schools, among other facilities needs.
CLICK HERE FOR A FULL REPORT ON MAY 16’s SCHOOL ELECTION RESULTS
While voters approved most bond and levy measures across the state, a handful of critical rejections will severely impact students and educators in some of Idaho’s largest, fastest growing schools. These losses will only build on Idaho’s systemic inequalities in its funding of public education.
Congratulations are in order for members and other educators who will have the resources they need to educate their students as a result of these votes — at least for now. However, one day, these same districts will be forced to ask even more of local property taxpayers. May 16’s pyrrhic bond and levy victories belie the unsustainable nature and inequality created by state education policymakers. Increasingly, a school district’s success will rely not on their ability to educate children, but their electioneering acumen.
The upshot is simple: Idaho policymakers must find the political will to properly fund Idaho public schools, just as the state’s constitution requires. Otherwise, the current inequality between districts and the volatile nature of funding the education of our children will only grow more desperate.