Writings and observations

Season of discontent

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Try drawing a straight line through the results in the school-related election results from this week, and where it seems to land is on a season of education discontent in Idaho.

You might run into trouble trying to get a lot more specific than that – the discontent appears to bounce in several directions. But indicators of discontent were all over in last Tuesday’s elections.

As usual this time of year, a bunch of levy and bond issues were on the ballot, and as usual a good many (a lot of those supplemental levies that just maintain existing operations) passed.

But voter turnout was low (it seemed generally lower than last year) and overall support for incumbent positions seemed down. Even, for that matter, some proposals for money-saving improvements.

This year the biggest proposal, a $56.1 million bond at Idaho Falls failed, though barely. That amount alone was triple the total amount of all the school issues that passed.

A batch of school board elections wound up with striking sometimes unconventional results. In the largest school district in Idaho, West Ada, two of the three seats up for election went to outsiders. Julie Madsen, a physician, took out a board member who had served 13 years. And maybe the most interesting winner of the night was the other newcomer there, Russell Joki, a former Nampa school superintendent (and failed 2013 Meridian City Council candidate) who for years pursued a legal case against school districts charging fees to students. “School districts should not be charging fees for any part of the locally approved, endorsed, or sanctioned educational experience offered to students,” he wrote in a 2013 opinion piece. What will he do about that now as a board member?

In Caldwell, where all three board seats were decided by extremely small margins, a local tempest developed when a challenger, former Democratic legislative candidate Travis Manning, defeated an incumbent. Some area conservatives argued he should be disqualified: He’s a teacher in a neighboring school district, and associated with the teacher’s union. But Manning’s politics may have a lot to do with it too, and the dynamics of the Caldwell board may change a bit with his arrival.

Then there was the case in southeast Idaho of two small districts, North Gem and Grace (in Caribou County), which were proposed for consolidation. It would seem to make perfect sense. The districts have small populations and school attendance and a limited tax base. On top of that building renovations (especially a century-old school at Bancroft) and other costs have been pressuring taxpayers, something a merger might ease. But the voters, after seeing a good deal of local divisiveness on the question, rejected it, which means they’ll soon be faced with several difficult and expensive bond issues.

The Idaho Legislature’s actions on schools this year may have been a side factor in some of this. The legislature funded schools a little more amply than in most recent years, and that could have affected some attitudes locally.

But the common thread, in so many places, of boat-rocking is hard to miss. A fair number of voters seems to have decided they’re not happy; what they haven’t yet concluded, evidently, is what to do about it.

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