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Doing the impossible

The single most useful political lesson in Idaho from last month’s primary elections may have come not from a congressional or legislative race, but from a school bond election in small-town Salmon.

The lessons weren’t immediately obvious, because they came not from the end result but from the way that result was achieved.

I’m leaning heavily here on an extensive account of this small-district, far-from-metro-area election in the excellent Idaho Ed News, which took the trouble to explain not just what happened, but also how and why. And the how and why are important.

Here’s the background.

As in many rural Idaho communities, the school district has been scrambling for funds for years. Money for operations, much of which comes from the state, has kept the schools running, but building needs have become severe. Those needs center on Pioneer Elementary School, built in 1959 and now close to a disaster area. As the Ed News explained, “the school’s foundation is crumbling, creating ripples in the floor that trip up the tiny feet of its students. Custodial staff crawl through raw sewage to fix backed up lines. Drainage on the site is poor and runoff leaks into the building. Bathrooms and the cafeteria are inaccessible to students with disabilities.” Among other things.

None of this is in dispute or unknown to the community (and the elementary school isn’t the only problem area). The school district board and administrators years ago proposed a bond issue to replace the school. It failed. Then it proposed another. It failed too. And the cycle repeated through 12 bond proposals and 12 failures. The last of them pulled 59% favorable, but that still wasn’t enough, since a two-thirds affirmative was needed.

Many people probably considered the situation hopeless.

And yet on May 21, they passed the bond, as voter turnout surged and 72% of voters signed off.

How did that happen?

First, different people got behind it, in the main not school administrators. That left space for others to jump in, and a core of about 30 volunteers started meeting, month after month, to consider the problem. Some had children in the schools, others were concerned about the community.

After months of work, the group went public and held a series of sessions aimed at both soliciting and answering questions. They also brought opposition arguments into sharper focus. The concerns covered such ideas as, “If we could see a plan and what our money is buying, then maybe we can support it;” “As long as it’s not fancy;” “We don’t need the Taj Mahal.” These were addressed.

On complaints about tax levels, the sessions finally brought a sense of where the break line was, defining the acceptable and unacceptable: Up to $20 million, most people could see their way to support, but not if it shot beyond that. (The proposal that passed was for $20 million.) Donations and alternative finance, and cost savings, were worked out as well.

That was just the beginning. The volunteer group – with help from school officials – conducted a media blitz and an intense public conversation through the local newspaper, online and wherever else was available. Nor was that all, as the Ed News said: “A few days before the election, committee leaders were confident the bond measure would pass, as if they had already tallied each vote — and they nearly had. Early in the bond campaign, the volunteers held a strategy session, where they read through the names of Salmon School District’s 4,999 registered voters and assigned a committee member to canvas for their ‘yes’ votes.”

After more than a  year and a half of organizing, it worked.

The lessons? People in the community should lead efforts like this. They should plan on working very intensively for a long time. They should run media communications, but not rely on that: Nothing beats face to face communication, between the more people, the better.

It’s hard work. But then, real democracy is.


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