Hill gets steeper for school votes

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In a public setting recently, a citizen was heard complaining about the injustice of using school buildings as polling places when school funding is on the ballot. It didn’t seem to matter when it was explained that changing standard polling places for these sparsely attended elections would likely diminish voter participation — a development that many conservative citizens would condemn.

The claims that school district employees have illegally engaged in electioneering at the polls typically come down to this: Fact sheets simply explaining how the bond or levy revenue will be used have been left up on walls in a school. Nobody has yet provided proof that only cute kids with big, friendly smiles are allowed in school hallways on Election Day, aiming to evoke positive reactions and “yes” votes.

A recent recommendation in North Idaho, imported perhaps by newcomers from California, calls for senior citizens to be able to opt out of paying property taxes for schools. At least some of those on “fixed incomes” have purchased expensive homes here with loads of equity and tax assessments far below what they’re used to paying, yet they’re claiming hardship. You don’t know who’s going to win today’s Super Bowl, but you can bet plenty that this demographic wants to sack the current system with a blitz of “no” votes.

And now for the first time, school district officials — salaried administrators, basically — have been told by the Idaho Legislature that they can’t advocate for their bonds and levies at any time or in any way. At least, that’s the way some lawyers and education leaders read it. An assistant principal calling a group of friends together on a Sunday evening to explain a school funding ballot measure and encourage their friends’ support is now a violation of state law, one interpretation insists.

That’s not what the framers of the bill intended, however, and this will likely need to face a court test before its ramifications are clear. It’s difficult to imagine that bill supporters thought it prudent to suspend First Amendment rights when those rights might contribute to slightly higher taxes and stronger public schools.

In an editorial board meeting last week, Dr. Steve Cook, who took over as Coeur d’Alene School District’s superintendent seven months ago, refrained from commenting on the legislation. However, he and district spokesman Scott Maben outlined steps they’re taking to prevent even the perception of favoritism at school polling places March 12, when a $20 million per year, two-year levy is sought. No signs about the levy on election day, not even the explanatory, non-advocacy kind, will be allowed on walls, in windows or on employee vehicles in school parking lots.

Cute kids in the hallways? That violation might prove unavoidable.

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