If we truly valued our children, we would ensure they spend their days in safe school buildings. But decades of neglect have caused Idaho schools to slide into a shameful state of disrepair. Raw sewage leaking under a cafeteria, collapsing roofs, and freezing classrooms illustrate the dire condition of school facilities across the state. Most frighteningly, a fire destroyed much of a Pocatello high school after faulty electrical wiring went unaddressed.
In his State of the State address, Governor Little touted a long-overdue investment in facilities that made headlines. But when we read the fine print, we see he is largely continuing to kick the can down the road. In the coming year, as schools face over $1.3 billion in facilities needs, they would receive just $200 million. And that’s if this proposal can make its way through the Republican supermajority, which has the same terrible track record in supporting school infrastructure.
In addition to increased state investment, there are two obvious policy solutions GOP lawmakers have rejected that would put schools on firmer ground. First, we must allow school districts to charge impact fees on new developments. Local governments regularly charge developers for the new roads, sewer lines, and other infrastructure that new housing developments necessitate. By making the same allowance for school infrastructure, growth can pay for itself instead of asking existing taxpayers to foot the bill.
Second, we need to end the two-thirds majority requirement for passing school bonds. This has tripped up desperate school districts like Boundary where recent bonds garnered a clear majority of the vote, but fell short of the threshold. The state is letting a minority of voters deny our students safe school buildings. Even a threshold of 55% or 60% of the vote would ensure that more projects with strong public support can proceed.
How we got here is a lesson Idahoans cannot afford to forget. As our schools have gone long underfunded, Little and his GOP colleagues have bragged about record budget surpluses, manufactured by the neglect of our core duties. They repeatedly doled out enormous rebates and permanent revenue cuts to the wealthiest while schools crumbled. His overdue acknowledgment of the problem is a small step towards redemption, but it’s no cause for a victory lap. For over twenty years, Little has held office in the Republican supermajority that created this crisis.
Idaho Democrats have tirelessly fought for increased investments in Idaho schools while the GOP underpaid our educators and let our schools fall into disrepair. Little is right when he says we can do better. It is a shame that it took him more than two decades in public office to realize this.
Idaho Democratic Party Chair