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EDITORIAL: State should step up for school facilities

| January 14, 2024 1:00 AM

Now here’s a tax shift in the right direction.

Eighteen years late, perhaps, and merely the first step of several needed, but a strong move for all Idahoans regardless.

We’re referring to Gov. Brad Little’s recommendation for the Legislature to invest $200 million this year — a first installment on $2 billion over 10 years — into public school facilities. A state report in 2022 (https://shorturl.at/npsAK) estimated that school facilities were roughly $850 million behind in construction and maintenance. That number grows by the day.

Eighteen years ago, you might remember, a special session of the Legislature permanently shifted hundreds of millions of dollars for school funding from property taxes to sales and income taxes. What was supposed to be a property tax windfall for Idahoans quickly morphed into a nightmare, as the Great Recession crippled sales and income taxes, leaving school districts heavily dependent on begging voters to fund bonds and levies to finance public school essentials — yes, through property taxes.

Without the state’s direct and significant financial support for facilities, many schools have fallen far behind in providing safe, efficient environments for students, staff and teachers. Deferred maintenance alone runs into the many millions of dollars.

What Gov. Little proposes would accomplish two positives: Giving schools funding to address their greatest resource needs while also providing some property tax relief to voters who have been forced since 2006 to personally fund school facilities that the state should have been handling all along.

Under Gov. Little’s plan, $125 million of the initial $200 million would go to new construction, with the remaining $75 million targeted for maintenance. While we might prefer to see more of that outlay targeted for urgently needed maintenance, the package is worthy of legislative support. Predictably, the governor’s intra-party antagonists don’t like it one bit.

Legislators who hope for a shift of their own — to cripple public education by moving those dollars to private and religious providers — are likely to fight Gov. Little’s plan tooth and nail. And they will likely be reminded that our pro-education governor is simply upholding Article IX of the state Constitution: 

“The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it shall be the duty of the legislature of Idaho, to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.”

Building sufficient facilities and taking care of those already serving students should be a given on the state’s list of key responsibilities. Doing so while putting property tax dollars back into residents’ pockets is a well-aimed bonus.