Lawmaker breaks down governor's plan to replace Idaho's aging schools, and how it would help local community - East Idaho News

Lawmaker breaks down governor’s plan to replace Idaho’s aging schools, and how it would help local community

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IDAHO FALLS – As the Idaho Legislative Session got underway last week, Gov. Brad Little announced education would continue to be his priority this year.

During his State of the State Address, he introduced a 10-year, $2 billion plan to replace Idaho’s aging public school buildings. It’s a proposal he and his aides have determined is the largest investment in school facilities in state history.

Rep. Rod Furniss, R-Rigby, who represents Jefferson, Fremont, Clark and Lemhi counties, is helping the governor in drafting this bill. Though it’s still in the early stages, Furniss tells the money is available to any public or charter school with a 10-year maintenance plan. The funds are provided through a bond the state is planning to buy.

“The state of Idaho will purchase a bond for $1.6 billion. It will pay $200 million a year toward that bond, which will come from sales tax (revenue). It’s been increasing enough that we feel that’s a good source to pay for it. It won’t affect other budgets,” Furniss says.

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Once the funding is acquired, it will be distributed to schools across the state. The amount each school receives will be based on average daily attendance records. The cap amount per school, which is still being discussed, is $40 million. The money can only be used for the construction of a new building, maintenance on a current building or be saved for a future project.

For school districts working to pass bonds, Furniss says the state funds would offset that cost and save money for taxpayers.

“Salmon, for example, needs to pass a $25 million bond for a new elementary school. This bill would give them roughly $4.6 million, so they could lower the bond amount to $20 million,” says Furniss.

A tour of Pioneer Elementary School in Salmon is what prompted this bill. Gov. Little and his staff, along with Representatives Furniss, Jerald Raymond, Sen. Van Burtenshaw, administrators and others toured the building in September when the governor made a stop in the area as part of his “Capitol for a day” event.

During the State of the State address, Little told legislators he visited a school in Salmon — Pioneer Elementary is what he was talking about — that had sewage leaking into a space under the school cafeteria. It’s time, Little said, to stop kicking the can down the road.

“Folks, we can do better,” Little said in his speech. “The can we are kicking is getting heavier, and we are running out of road.”

RELATED | Idaho Gov. Little calls for 10-year project to replace aging school buildings in State of State

Numerous calls from community members about the situation in the last several years prompted Furniss to get involved.

rod furniss
District 31 Representative Rod Furniss, R-Rigby | Courtesy photo

Breann Green, a member of the Salmon Schools Needs Committee, says the 66-year-old elementary school is at the end of its useful life. She describes what some of the conditions are like for the more than 300 students who attend.

RELATED | ‘Our children deserve more.’ Salmon schools deal with deteriorating and unsafe buildings while struggling to get funding

Green says there isn’t enough room inside the school for every student, so the fourth and fifth graders attend class in detached portable buildings outside. Running water isn’t available so the kids have to walk to the main building to use the restroom. For safety reasons, the doors are locked during school hours so the kids carry a key around their neck to get in and out of the building.

She praises teachers’ efforts in making it a “bright and cheery” atmosphere for students even though “the foundation is crumbling.”

“In my kid’s classroom, the teacher trips multiple times a day because the foundation is crumbling under the new carpet,” says Green.

Food is stored outside the cafeteria because the kitchen is too small, which Green says is difficult at this time of year for lunch workers walking in and out to prepare meals.

As for the plumbing, Green says the pipes are deteriorating and the functionality is poor because a “flat grade” where the pipes connect with the city’s sewer system causes the toilets in the bathroom to back up frequently.

“They pour bleach and chemicals down it regularly to try and keep the smell down. They really do the best they can, but the building is just at its life’s end,” she says.

salmon elementary cracks
Cracks in the floor at Pioneer Elementary in Salmon | Courtesy Idaho Statesman

The junior high closed down several years ago because heating the building became too expensive. As a result, Green says there isn’t another existing space that can be used.

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A grassroots community effort to build a new sports complex next to the high school was completed in 2021, but attempts to pass a bond for a new elementary school have failed 13 times. One of the arguments against the bond revolved around reaching out to the state to help fund it. Thanks to the governor’s bill, Green feels confident the bond — which will be on the ballot in May — will finally pass and she’s grateful for his support.

“I’m blown away at what he proposed. I was not expecting that at all,” Green says. “I hope it passes. I don’t know what he’s up against, but it would be amazing for the whole state.”

Furniss says there’s a lot of moving parts to the bill, so it’s hard to say when it will be introduced in committee. But he’s hopeful it will move forward within the next week.

“It really is a property tax savings bill,” says Furniss. “There’s a lot of districts this would really help and we’re hoping that it (passes).”

basketball hoop
An old basketball hoop stands in front of newer playground equipment on the backside of the elementary school in Salmon. | Sarah A. Miller, Idaho Statesman


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