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Idaho lawmakers tackle school maintenance backlog in interim committee

The Idaho State Flag hanging inside the Statehouse Rotunda.
James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio

Idaho lawmakers on an interim committee are taking the next couple of months to tackle an $874 million backlog in deferred public school maintenance.

A report released earlier this year by the Office of Performance Evaluations found it’ll cost taxpayers at least $874 million to bring public schools into “good” physical condition.

The cost could be much higher, though, because not all schools participated in the report.

The Idaho Supreme Court in 2005 found the legislature failed to properly fund school facilities, with lawmakers eventually increasing the state’s sales tax by a penny to cover those expenses. In exchange, maintenance and operations levies were removed.

Keith Bybee, head of the legislature’s budget division, told legislators Tuesday the money generated by the sales tax bump wasn’t dedicated to school projects.

“The revenues just flowed into the general fund, so one of the things that was happening at that time was putting those dollars in competition with the rest of state government,” Bybee said.

Schools can’t rely on bond issues to fund capital projects in Idaho. They need two-thirds of voters in a district to approve a proposal – the highest threshold in the country.

With recent record budget surpluses numbering more than a billion dollars, committee members suggested a revolving, low-interest loan fund as one suggestion to solve the problem.

House Minority Caucus Chair Sally Toone (D-Gooding), who was a longtime rural teacher, said the state should shoulder costs to build facilities for the vo-tech programs it’s prioritizing schools to create.

“We’ve had to scramble to build a lab in some of our rural districts for CNA programs, some of our welding programs or high-tech computer labs,” Toone said.

Some Republicans advocated that charter schools should also benefit from whatever solution is recommended, since they currently receive no state money for facilities.

Lawmakers will finalize their recommendations in December.

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

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio

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!