Fixing Idaho school buildings gets a new look

A decade ago, Idaho tussled over how to improve aging, dilapidated school buildings. Small school districts hit by high building construction costs, were reluctant to approve hefty property tax hikes to pay for bonds to build schools.

The issue wound up in front of the Idaho Supreme Court, which said the Legislature had not done enough to solve the problem, but did not provide a road map to a solution.

Lawmakers responded by creating a fund that would be used to address the worst-case situations and would be replenished by ordering a tax on district residents to repay the dollars the state spent. It has been used only twice.

A new idea is surfacing in Idaho that would spread the cost beyond districts in an effort to improve school buildings across the state.

Dave Teater, a school building consultant from Hayden, has offered a suggestion that schools go on a maintenance routine meant to help keep buildings viable for up to 90 years. Buildings would undergo major maintenance investment at 30- and 60-year intervals.

School maintenance — which runs about $60 million a year in Idaho —  would become a shared cost.

Districts would agree to kick in local property tax. Money schools get from the lottery proceeds would go into a maintenance fund,  and the legislature would put in dollars.

Money would be doled out to districts based on need, with safety being the top priority.

Teater appeared before the Legislature’s K-12 Interim Committee Wednesday at the invitation of State Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’ Alene , who has said if the Legislature doesn’t do more to address building school buildings, it risks the Supreme Court becoming more involved.

Teater’s plan is a pencil sketch. He acknowledges that major questions needs to be answered. How would the program be administered, for example. What would happen to existing construction debt in districts? How would such a program deal with pent up demand for improved buildings. How much would the state pay and how would it raise the money?

But even with questions, Teater said studies indicate there are advantages to updated school buildings that show up in student achievement. Schools that provide improved  air quality, lighting and acoustics see an average 6 percentage point increase in student performance, Teater said.

Posted in In The Classroom