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School election consolidation bill heads to House floor

Otter vetoes education bill, lawmakers consider override
Posted at 1:31 PM, Feb 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-25 15:31:09-05

Originally posted on by Kevin Richert on February 25, 2020

Over the objections of several education groups, a school election consolidation bill is headed to the House floor.

Voting along party lines, the House State Affairs Committee endorsed House Bill 393, which would require school districts to run bond issues and levies in May and November. The bill would eliminate March and August school elections. And as Idaho Education News reported earlier this month, schools are most likely to run bond issues and levies in March — and these ballot measures are most likely to pass in March.

The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, said she is not trying to subvert school elections. Horman and Senate co-sponsor Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, instead said a consolidated calendar would improve voter turnout and engagement.

Republicans on State Affairs took a harder tack. Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, said the bill would eliminate the voter fatigue that comes with repeated bond issues and levies. Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, said schools have “exploited” the current election calendar.

“I think this is a bill that the citizens want,” said Scott, the author of a separate bill to require local governments to wait a year before rerunning a failed bond issue. That bill passed the House nearly a month ago, but the Senate hasn’t taken it up.

As was the case in January, when State Affairs took up Scott’s bill, educators and education lobbyists turned out in committee Tuesday to try to block the Horman-Den Hartog bill.

The Nezperce School District has run a supplemental levy for more than 30 years; in May, a one-year levy passed with 80 percent support. But the levy accounts for about a fifth of the rural district’s budget, Superintendent Shawn Tiegs said. If Nezperce had to go without a levy for one year, the district would have to cut staff and services for its 150 students.

“One failed levy and we have zero fiscal recourse,” Tiegs said.

The Nampa School District will run a supplemental levy on March 10, four months after a levy fell only 11 votes shy of the simple majority required to pass. The district will try again in March — and even seek a higher sum of money, $25.79 million over two years — after hearing a recurring theme from young parents, trustee Allison Westfall said. The parents want to support local schools, and they assumed the November levy would pass easily.

“We took the time to listen to our community,” Westfall said.

About 40 districts, including Nampa, will run levies next month.

Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association, said the March election date enables districts to publish a budget public notice in June, issue teacher contracts by July 1 and hold a budget public hearing in July.

“The March election date is a timing issue for us,” she said.

Horman wasn’t sold. She said she met with state education groups after introducing her bill, and “did not hear anything that was not solvable.”

While the balance of testimony ran against HB 393, three speakers urged the committee to support it.

Michael Law discussed his experience as a Kuna school trustee — although he didn’t call out the Kuna School District by name. In March 2014, voters rejected a supplemental levy. Over Law’s objections, the district ran the levy again in May, and it passed. HB 393 would reduce the cost of elections, Law said, and stop districts from running repeat ballot measures.

Committee Democrats tried to derail the bill. Boise Democrat Brooke Green chided sponsors for writing their bill without talking with education lobbyists. Boise Democrat John Gannon questioned why sponsors are trying to restrict school elections while irrigation districts can still run elections in February and August.

With the party-line vote, HB 393 now heads to the House floor, for a possible vote later this week.