Mounting state school repairs called money pit
by Betsy Z. Russell – Staff writer, Spokesman Review
BOISE – Idaho is forcing taxpayers to waste money repairing schools that really need to be replaced, a state district judge said Friday.
"It does seem to me it’s a system problem when local communities are forced to remodel these sorts of money pits rather than simply replace them," said Judge Deborah Bail as she closed a weeklong hearing in Idaho’s long-running school lawsuit. "It seems to me we’ll address that."
She made her comments after a week of stark videos of crumbling schools, outdated wiring, ancient boilers and mold-infected floors.
In February 2001, Bail declared Idaho’s system for funding school construction unconstitutional, and ordered the Legislature to fix it. Several bills have passed, but schools say the problem remains unresolved. Now, Bail is holding a series of hearings to evaluate the Legislature’s moves and see if she should order further remedies.
In brief comments in court as she closed the hearing Friday, the judge said, "It seems to me there are some consistent issues being identified, such as problems in a great number of schools with electrical wiring … fire alarm systems. Those are certainly areas worth some focus."
She also noted the testimony from Lapwai School District Superintendent Harold Ott, whose district has two buildings so infected with mold that employees and students are becoming ill. Ott’s own office, which is in a building that also houses kindergarten classes, can now only be entered while wearing a breathing mask. It’s still where all the district’s files are stored. The same problem to an even larger extent affects the high school.
There, an engineering report showed it would cost $9 million to fix the school, or $7.2 million to junk it and build a new one. But the district’s total bonding capacity only adds up to $4 million.
"It is a building that would cause great concern to anyone," Bail said. "Replacement is economically more sensible than patchwork repairs. Probably, the court will have to address that. Even if they passed the maximum bond issue they can pass, they wouldn’t have enough money to build the building."
The school districts maintain that to meet the state Constitution’s guarantee that the Legislature provide students in the state with a thorough education, lawmakers must help local school districts correct a school construction backlog that’s estimated in the hundreds of millions, and help prevent future backlogs by kicking in more for maintenance. Traditionally, Idaho has left school building costs to local districts, which must fund them through local, voter-approved property tax hikes.
This year, lawmakers for the first time passed legislation to provide at least a small amount of help to all school districts that pass bonds after Sept. 15, 2002. But the districts said more is needed, with the current deteriorated state of many schools.
In Lapwai, the district’s pride is a modern elementary school, constructed after the old one burned down 14 years ago. Also, thanks to a donation from a celebrity alum, there’s a spiffy football field. But the rest of the district’s buildings are in poor shape.
On Friday, the business manager of the Moscow School District testified that even in Moscow, there are building problems the district is unable to afford to fix. That’s a district that has some of the lowest class sizes in the state, thanks to extra property tax levies local voters have passed specifically for that purpose.
"This is a statewide problem," said Chris Huntley, one of the attorneys for Idaho Schools for Equal Educational Opportunity, the group of school districts that sued the state.
Bail affirmed that at the start of this week’s hearing, assuring Deputy Idaho Attorney General Michael Gilmore that the issue involves all the school districts in the state — not just those that sued.
As superintendents and other officials testified, Gilmore noted that each had some expenditures in his or her district that go beyond the minimum requirements of the law, from gymnasiums to hot lunches to special tutoring programs.
"I think, with a couple of exceptions, we have identified ready sources of funds to cure all of the problem," Gilmore said Friday. "It’s just that the districts will not allocate the funds."
He added, "Our counter-claims in this case will request the court to order districts to reallocate their funds."
But Huntley disputed that as the answer. Residents of school districts want things like athletics offered in their schools, he said. "The state is taking the position that music programs are frivolous and unnecessary to a thorough education, that athletics are frivolous and unnecessary to a thorough education, that in some sense technology is frivolous and unnecessary to an education. And we certainly disagree with that."
Gilmore said some school districts haven’t even tried to get their voters to pass bonds or facility levies to raise local property taxes to fix building problems. "Until they try that, I don’t think they can say the system isn’t working," he said.
Huntley said he thought the districts had proven that it’s not. "We have established through the evidence presented in 2000 and at this phase of the hearing that there are school districts that, despite all their efforts, cannot get the voters in that school district to increase the amount of funds available to the schools through property taxes," he said, "and that the current level of funding taken as a whole is inadequate to provide the safe and through education required by the Constitution."
The hearings on remedies for Idaho’s school building problems are scheduled to continue with a four-day session in mid-November, after which Bail could issue her final ruling.