The Blaine County School District’s Finance Committee will recommend that the school board put a 10-year levy totaling some $40 million to pay for construction, maintenance and technology before voters sometime next year.
The group wrapped up work after nearly a year of meetings last Thursday, and intends to get its pitch on the agenda at the board’s next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, Oct 9. From there, it’s up to the trustees to decide whether to pursue a levy, how much to ask for and when to put it on a ballot.
The current plant facilities levy lapses in 2020, meaning the district has until the end of August to either replace it or carve out money from other funds to cover costs.
For now, though, the ad-hoc committee has completed its charge, prioritizing more than 40 projects that the district will need or want to undertake in the next 10 years.
The task was complicated by the biggest question: What to do with Hailey Elementary, the district’s oldest schoolhouse, and the first of four that it says will need to be replaced in the coming decades. The 90,000-square-foot building dates back to at least 1938, according to a fact sheet compiled by former Principal Thad Biggers, and it has undergone extensive remodeling to accommodate just about every grade offered by the district.
Barring a reversal from the trustees, a new building won’t be part of the plan this time. With estimates close to $30 million, the replacement would have accounted for more than 40 percent of the total bill—a cost the committee deemed too high during its meeting on Sept. 12. At that price, they reasoned, replacing the patchwork building would dominate the debate among voters, putting the rest of the levy at risk.
That decision sparked more questions, which the committee hashed out last week. For instance: What improvements should be made to the sprawling structure, knowing that its years are likely numbered?
Or, as GwenCarol Holmes put it, what can the district do to make the old building work better for elementary kids?
“We can’t give them a new school, so how do we give them a good school?” she asked.
The question took on extra urgency as news spread that the new building was off the table, and that the old one was slated to receive about one-tenth of the $4 million then earmarked for Hemingway STEAM School.
After reading about the meeting in the Idaho Mountain Express, Hailey partisans “went ballistic,” Holmes said, prompting a letter to and subsequent meetings with parents and staff. There, they drafted a wish list for Hailey, at a sum that surpassed Hemingway’s: $4.4 million in potential projects.
Holmes also sent a letter to the general public, asking for comment at the Sept. 26 open meeting. No one took her up on the invitation.
By then, the committee thought Hailey’s total had grown too high.
“I don’t want this levy living or dying on Hailey Elementary,” Wood River High School math teacher Jaymie Stimac said. “But what we do build, it’s going to be demolished. So, we need to be thoughtful about these projects.”
Dan Turner, a local financier serving on the committee, saw the 80-year-old building much the same way.
“What do you get, after spending that money?” he said. “I drove here in a 2003 Land Cruiser. There’s not a lot more investment I’m going to make in that car. I’m going to keep driving it until I can get a new one.”
A series of close votes pared the list down to top priorities, including new playground fencing, roof repairs and some $1.7 million in safety and security upgrades requested by teachers—in all, about $2.3 million worth of projects.
Then, Hemingway lost some funding in final cuts, bringing its potential haul down to $3 million for eight new classrooms to accommodate middle-schoolers. By the end, projects at the two schools had gone from being $3.6 million apart to roughly $700,000.
Asking around $4 million per year, the levy would initially lower the property tax burden. The recommendation falls short of the nearly $6 million the district will collect this year from the existing plant facilities levy and a supplemental levy spun off of it in 2017. Both come off the tax rolls next year.
But the district may need to pursue a separate supplemental levy next. While the funding will sunset, the obligations owed staff and programming won’t. The consensus among committee members is clear: To keep its current funding level, the district will have to ask voters for a new supplemental levy every two years—the longest period allowed by Idaho law—on top of a new plant facility levy every 10 years. And, if it opts to replace Hailey Elementary, it would need a third ballot measure, likely a bond, to pay for it.
With its plant facilities and supplemental levies as well as a permanent stabilization levy—a $32.2 million fund that the Legislature authorized in perpetuity when it shifted the state’s funding formula a decade and a half ago—the School District captures more than half of all the tax dollars collected by the county treasurer. In 2018, that amounted to just over $38.2 million of the $70.6 million taken in.
The district has its choice of four election dates next year to start asking once more.
A national election year isn’t necessarily a good thing for school levies, Holmes said. Primaries and general elections draw more voters to the polls—including many who don’t keep up with local issues.
“You have a number of people who haven’t been paying attention to the schools,” she said. “They see ‘tax’ and just say no.”
The trustees could dodge bigger elections in May and November by targeting March and August to get the 55 percent support the district needs to pass the levy. And if it doesn’t, it can keep trying.
“A failure often leads to a rallying of people who stood on the sideline,” District Finance Manager Bryan Fletcher said. “After it fails, you can retool and regroup. But if you have a bad offering, it probably won’t make any difference.”