The Blaine County School District’s Finance Committee continued to whittle down its wish list of projects Tuesday as it moves closer to making a recommendation to the school board likely endorsing a new levy to pay for facilities.
The ad-hoc group will present its findings this fall—and push the board to ask voters to fund new building developments, technology purchases and ongoing maintenance sometime next year, before the current plant facilities levy lapses.
Before then, it needs to line up the requests and pare the final number into something politically palatable.
This week, it trimmed the total cost of projects over the 10-year life of a new plant facilities levy from $58.8 million to $54.6 million—and made a plan to come back to the district office on Sept. 12 for another fine-tooth round of cuts.
That figure falls below the current $59.9 million levy, passed in 2009. If it were to stand alone, taxpayers would have a lighter bill from 2020 on.
The problem, according to Superintendent Gwen-Carol Holmes, a nonvoting member of the committee, is that it likely won’t.
By law, a plant facilities levy can only be spent on buildings, maintenance and technology—not programs. In 2017, voters allowed the School District to split its $5.98 million annual plant facilities levy in half, turning $2.98 million into a supplemental levy to patch shortfalls in the general fund. That funding will go away next year, too, but, Holmes said, the money owed for staff and programming won’t.
“We are currently paying staff because of a supplemental levy that’s also expiring,” she told the committee of administrators, teachers, members of the public and Trustee Kevin Garrison. “We don’t anticipate a big growth, so we will either have to go for another supplemental levy or we will have to cut staff.”
Wood River High School Principal John Pearce echoed Holmes.
“When you get down to it, it’s likely there need to be ongoing levies in Blaine County’s future,” he said.
State money only covers about a third of the district’s general fund budget, whereas local money stakes 56 to 60 percent of it, depending on the year.
The School District collects the largest chunk of any single property tax bill—as much as 65-75 percent, depending on where a taxpayer lives, according to a brief presented to the committee in July.
Between its plant facilities, supplemental and permanent stabilization levy—a $32.2 million fund that the state Legislature authorized in perpetuity when it shifted its funding formula a decade and a half ago—the BCSD 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.
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—and a new plant facility levy every 10.
During 10 months of districtwide facility tours, the committee identified four schools that will likely need replacement sometime in the next 40 years, starting with Hailey Elementary.
Hailey’s building dates back more than 80 years—at least as far as 1938, according to a fact sheet presented by former Principal Thad Biggers to Finance Committee members during a January tour of the school. It has undergone extensive remodels to house just about every grade the School District offers. In its description of the site, the committee called the 90,000-square-foot facility a “maze of connected buildings,” making the building more difficult to navigate and harder to secure than modern alternatives.
Of the 100 or so potential projects drummed up in those districtwide visits, none came close to the $16.5 million price tag pinned to the potential 65,000-square-foot construction at Hailey.
The figure is such a large portion of the request that on Tuesday, the committee considered splitting it out, allowing voters to weigh in on the replacement separately. If not rebuilt, the building will need at least $300,000 in renovations over the next 10 years, plus the technological upgrades all other schools are slated to receive.
Dan Turner, a local financier serving on the committee, wanted a “referendum” on the idea at the polls.
“I’d like to hear from the voters, if that’s what they believe,” he said. “Let the public be the arbiter. It’s their money.”
Holmes, though, called asking for three levies in one year “political suicide,” while other committee members were worried about tribalism that might arise among voters only focused on their local schools.
Then, there’s an issue of trust. The Finance Committee drafts estimates, but it can’t guarantee how the school board plans to spend money it takes in. Anticipating a population boom in 2009, the levy included about $13 million for a new elementary school, according to district Finance Manager Bryan Fletcher. Enrollment never rose, and the school was never built. The money was spent elsewhere—including on a multimillion-dollar legal imbroglio with energy contractor McKinstry, which was settled out of court in 2013.
“I’m concerned the rallying cry is going to be, ‘You collected that money, and spent it on something else—why are you back asking for it again?’” Fletcher said.
In September, the voting members of the group will cast ballots on individual items and on a recommended timeline for putting the bill to voters. With the final payment on both the plant facilities and supplemental levies coming in June, elections in either March or May look the most likely times to get it on a ballot.
The committee is considering public listening sessions before approaching the board, but so far, no dates have been set.
“I feel you’re going to need a levy every 10 years just to maintain the buildings,” said committee member Kurt Boeddiker, who works in the construction industry. “From there, it’s what the public wants.”