Hailey Elementary will have to hold out for other options as the Blaine County School District’s Finance Committee cut a possible replacement for the patchwork building out of a list of projects that it hopes to cover with a 10-year levy that will likely go before voters next year.
At close to $30 million, the project would have almost doubled the $39.6 million worth of construction, building maintenance and technology items that made the seventh round of cuts during the committee’s meeting last Thursday.
The committee will continue to whittle down the wish list, planning at least one more meeting before making a recommendation to the school board, which has final say over a potential plant facilities levy. The current plant facilities levy lapses in 2020.
At this point, it seems unlikely that a new schoolhouse will be included in the request. The current 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 the district offers.
But initial estimates vastly undershot the cost of building a 65,000-square-foot structure. The $16.25 million considered in July was closer to $23 million by September after reviewing recent comparables in Boise, plus another $7 million in debt service to secure the money up front, according to District Finance Manager Bryan Fletcher.
“There’s no question that it’s a stretched-out, inefficient building, but to get the general public to vote for that, at that price tag? I think it’s an impossible task,” said Len Harlig, a member of the public who serves on the committee.
The bones of the building—heating systems, lighting, the structure itself—are in “great shape,” Director of Buildings and Grounds Howie Royal said . The question is how functional and safe the winding hallways are as an elementary school—and whether the district is willing to risk losing the other $39.6 million of projects should the inflated price sink the entire levy.
“If you include Hailey Elementary, you make it a conversation about Hailey Elementary,” Royal said. “It’ll take your breath away, when you see that number.”
That’s not the only political consideration, though—especially when Hemingway STEAM School is slated to get nearly 10 times the funding that Hailey is. (See sidebar for a building-by-building breakdown.) As part of its expansion through middle school, it’s in line for a new wing with eight classrooms, hallways and restrooms, totaling $3 million. Plus, it could see another $1 million for plumbing and kitchen upgrades.
Meanwhile, Hailey Elementary is still marked for replacement, and the committee is reluctant to invest money just to tear it down. Even if they add a few more line items, the sum isn’t likely to approach Hemingway’s allotment. And that threatens to split valley voters along geographic lines, north versus south.
“I’m worried about Hailey coming in at $400,000, and Hemingway at $4 million,” Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes said. “We’re trying to unite the community, not divide it.”
The trustees could consider other options for replacing Hailey Elementary. A separate bond is possible. That measure would need a separate vote garnering two-thirds approval, and, it would have to wait—probably several years—to get it.
“It’s imperative that we make upgrades [to the building], because we’re going to have to live with it,” Holmes said. “We can’t ask for a plant facilities levy, a supplemental levy and a bond—boom, boom, boom.”
Royal plans to meet with new Hailey Principal Toni Boush to discuss ways to improve the existing building. The committee already plans to overhaul the drop-off areas, and make sure the playground is completely fenced. It has also discussed modernizing classroom and exterior locks, installing two-pane windows in the gym and launching a “refresh” to make the building more welcoming to students.
“There are only so many times teachers can come in during the summer to paint the hallways and try to beautify the building,” Communications Director Heather Crocker told the committee.
Other Hailey schools would be in line for major improvements. Wood River High School, the district’s largest building, is slated to get the most of any single property, though much of the $4.18 million would be directed outside the walls. Its plan is primarily aimed at athletics, with nearly $2 million to develop farmland at the mouth of Quigley Canyon into a field complex, $770,000 to install artificial turf in the football stadium and $570,000 to revamp locker rooms. Another $880,000 is earmarked to expand the parking lot by 300 spots.
Not all of that may survive final cuts. Either way, levies are poised to become a way of life for the School District. In June, it will receive the last payment from a $59.9 million plant facilities levy passed in 2009. In 2017, voters allowed the district to split that levy in half, creating a $2.98 million draw for buildings, maintenance and tech alongside a new supplemental levy to patch shortfalls in the general fund. That funding will go away next year, too, but the money owed for staff and programming won’t.
“We are currently paying staff because of a supplemental levy that’s also expiring,” Holmes told the committee in August. “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.”
The School District collects the largest chunk of any single property tax bill in the county—as much as 65-75 percent, depending on where a taxpayer lives, according to a brief presented to the committee in July.
With its plant facilities and supplemental levies as well as a permanent stabilization levy—a $32.2 million fund that the Idaho 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 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—and a new plant facility levy every 10 years.
Idaho requires school districts to set aside 2 percent of the replacement value of its buildings each year for maintenance, which translates to $1.3 million annually for the BCSD. The district has another $800,000 to pay in yearly technology fees and replacement costs. Over the 10-year life of the levy, that amounts to $21 million—more than half the proposal. If voters don’t pass a new plant facility levy next year, the district will have to carve those fixed costs out of its general operating fund.
The committee plans to meet again on Thursday, Sept. 26, at 4 p.m. in the Community Campus to polish estimates and finalize the project list. If it’s approved by the board, a vote is possible as soon as March or May, leaving limited time to whip the 55 percent support it needs to pass.
“Someone’s going to have to go out and make this case to the public,” Harlig said.
The committee cut about $20 million off its initial project list to get it under $40 million. Much of the possible levy is eaten up by routine maintenance and meat-and-potatoes replacements—roofs and flooring, bells and clocks. With the few dozen items left, it made sure to tag at least something for each building. Here’s a list of the biggest-ticket items, plus some interesting projects, that could come up over the next 10 years.
New Boys Locker Room: $1.5 million
Track replacement: $400,000
Windows for natural light, $152,000
Pre-K classrooms: $638,000
Drop-off/Pick-up improvements: $152,000
Hemingway STEAM School
Eight new classrooms: $3 million
Wood River High School
Quigley Field development: $1.96 million
Silver Creek High School
Classroom refresh: $148,000
Wood River Middle School
Failing boiler replacement: $1.13 million
Gym expansion: $443,250
Founders Field restrooms: $350,000
Entryway traffic rerouting: $241,000
New parking lot: $392,000
District Office/Technology Department
Districtwide security camera improvements: $350,000
Access control systems: $250,000
Firewall upgrades: $150,000