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A new report outlines a massive maintenance backlog for Idaho's public schools

A photo showing a line of yellow school busses.
Jay Peeples

A new report estimates Idaho’s public K-12 school maintenance backlog to be at least $874 million while the state isn’t enforcing a law requiring districts to report their buildings’ needs.

A 2005 Idaho Supreme Court decision found the state legislature failed to meet its constitutional duty to sufficiently fund school buildings.

Lawmakers at the time boosted some funding and required districts to regularly submit 10-year maintenance plans, which most schools don’t follow.

The report from the Idaho Office of Performance Evaluations released Monday estimates the backlog for school repairs to be at least $874 million to bring them up to a “good” condition.

Casey Petti, the analyst who wrote the report, said that figure is likely lower than the real deficit because of the lack of data available.

Rep. Steve Berch (D-Boise) said that number is eye-popping, considering lawmakers are on the cusp of passing a historic $600 million tax cut. State economists are forecasting a $1.9 billion surplus this year.

“If you don’t spend the money to take care of the nuts and bolts of your responsibilities, the surplus may not be really a surplus,” Berch said. “It’s just money that you didn’t spend that you should’ve spent.”

The Idaho Office of Performance Evaluations surveyed all 115 public school districts in Idaho, asking for a self-assessment of their facilities. Of those, 67% replied.

Superintendents in those districts rated the majority of their schools as being in fair condition, meaning they meet the minimal needs to hold classes but “require frequent maintenance or have other limitations.”

Districts reported about 40% of their schools to be in excellent or good condition. Between 10%-17% of schools were rated in poor condition.

In a follow-up survey to 12 districts representing rural and urban areas from across the state, more than half of their schools were found to be past their expected useful life of 50 years.

The report recommends the legislature commission a statewide facility assessment, the last one being completed in 1993.

It found nearly 30 years ago that schools needed $1.3 billion for repairs, new buildings, or upgrades, accounting for inflation.

Depending on which metric you look at, Idaho ranks at, or near the bottom, of all states in funding school building projects, according to the report.

Revenue from the state lottery and some match dollars are distributed to districts. Discretionary funds from the state can be used for building maintenance as well.

However, the amount of discretionary dollars funneled to schools has decreased since 2006, adding up to a $1 billion difference over that period.

Districts have also relied on local property owners to fund supplemental or bond levies to bankroll deferred repairs or build new buildings.

According to Petti, to pass a bond levy to construct a new school, more than two-thirds of voters need to approve the measure – the highest threshold in the country.

The report states that the high bar “has resulted in most school bonds failing over the past 10 years.”

Instead of cutting income taxes, Democrats have proposed paying off $250 million in outstanding bonds and levies for public school districts, though they say Republicans refuse to introduce their bills.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

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I cover politics and a bit of everything else for Boise State Public Radio. Outside of public meetings, you can find me fly fishing, making cool things out of leather or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season. If you have a tip, please get in touch!

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