High voter turnout makes passing school district bonds and levies difficult, and it’s not going to get any easier in the future.
Historically, school districts have been allowed to hold elections on obscure days at unusual polling locations. Districts count on turning out teachers and parents with students enrolled in the affected schools, and low turnout of all other electors. It’s a winning strategy that has helped pass levies and bonds for years – and it ends in 2011. Last year, the Legislature approved a plan to move school elections to four specific unalterable days during the year.
When people know about elections, voters turn out and often reject tax increases. Two elections ran off the rails this spring in Bonneville County where a construction bond in Idaho Falls School District 91 and the doubling of a plant facilities levy in Bonneville 93 failed to garner the supermajorities necessary to pass. A side issue, school district consolidation, drove voter turnout to record levels. Critics of the proposals legitimately wondered why two nearly-identical districts next door to one another couldn't consolidate and achieve the same goals, rather than take on more debt. The districts tried to downplay criticisms saying, “give us your money and we’ll talk about efficiencies later.” Too few taxpayers thought the districts would still respect them in the morning, and the proposals failed.
The school districts said they will regroup and try again later. Unsolicited advice: it would be better for them to come to terms with reality and work more intelligently within their current budgets. As long as the voters’ collective consciousness remains raised – the district consolidators are regrouping, too – turnout will remain high and measures will not pass. What's more, next year passage will be even more difficult because the new election consolidation law takes effect. Voters, armed with new awareness of school tax and budget issues will ask tough questions, and now that elections aren't held on obscure dates, they'll show up to vote.
Even though it wanted to double its plant facilities debt, Bonneville School District 93 still deserves credit for modeling how to stop the seemingly-endless money pleas. It offers the Bonneville District Virtual Academy, attracting families that otherwise might have chosen a full-time online public charter school or homeschooling. Notably, the district hasn’t had to build more buildings to educate more students. Both school district consolidation and online learning are reasonable ways to reduce costs.
If a school district like Meridian can educate more than 32,000 students with just one administration and one superintendent, why can't the same be done in eastern Idaho? If the Bonneville District Virtual Academy is a good way to educate kids without the cost of building construction, why can't there be more investment in this successful and innovative approach? If charter schools are able to educate children at less cost to the taxpayer than traditional schools, why can't that savings be replicated in the traditional schools? Taxpayers deserve answers and if the answers are not satisfying, they'll vote no.