Tuesday’s Idaho Falls School District 91 bond election leaves you with a sense of déjà vu. When the all the votes were counted, the proportion who supported building a new high school was identical, down to two decimal points, to the outcome in November: 58.44 percent.
The outcome makes two things clear.
First, the voters in D91 overwhelmingly support a better high school for students in Idaho Falls. In any normal election, getting the support of six in 10 voters would be considered a landslide. The D91 bond had about twice the margin of victory that Ronald Reagan had over Jimmy Carter in 1980. But, because of Idaho’s supermajority bond rule, chalk it up as a loss.
Second, it showed that D91 is losing ground. While the outcome was identical to the last go-round, this election was substantially different. It was a low-turnout, single-issue vote, which usually helps bonds — no other local bond or levy failed Tuesday night. The election was held on a “back to school” night for many D91 schools, bringing parents close to polling places. The “yes” side had advantages absent in November, but it failed to gain any ground with voters.
For now at least, the students and teachers in this community will deal with cramped, overcrowded classrooms without basic necessities like sufficient electrical outlets. And prospective businesses that need good schools to attract employees may take their jobs elsewhere.
Where to go from here?
Supporters shouldn’t despair. Given the artificially high hurdle that must be cleared to pass a bond, it’s not uncommon that bonds must be tweaked and put to voters repeatedly before a successful outcome. Keep talking to your friends. Hold voter registration drives. Learn lessons from the wildly successful campaign to create the College of Eastern Idaho.
Most importantly, find common ground with opponents.
The most vocal bloc of bond opponents appears to have a familiar mindset: any debt, any tax hike is to be attacked and defeated. As surely as the sun rises in the east, an opposition like this pops up any time any bond is floated anywhere. Nothing can be done about that.
But it would be a mistake to lump all opposition to the D91 bond together. Some who voted “no” were fully ready to shoulder the financial burden of a bond. They just didn’t like the proposal the district had outlined.
Some of these opponents don’t like the idea of trading a centrally located school where many students, particularly from lower-income areas of the city, can walk to school every day for one on the outskirts of town.
Others remember the district’s abandonment of the O.E. Bell building, and the decades of urban blight that followed. Could that happen to Idaho Falls High School if another recession came along? They weren’t ready to risk it.
Others simply don’t want to say goodbye to a school that has long been at the center of high school education in the local area.
These aren’t irreconcilable differences.
If D91 can come up with a plan that brings these opponents on board, many of them will become not just supporters but enthusiastic campaigners. Converting these opponents into supporters means gaining not only their votes, but the votes of their friends and relatives.
But it’s going to take more than a better marketing plan. It’s going to take substantial changes to the proposal. This isn’t a bond that can be re-run again with some new packaging.
Who better to bring ideas to the table than the moderate opposition, those who are willing to pay a few more bucks a year in property taxes but want a better plan? They should speak up, and D91 should listen.