With a deteriorating structure, North Gem School in Bancroft, Idaho is at a crossroads. Residents in this small city will vote to either issue a bond to fund the building of a new school, or to close its doors. Learn more in this video.
>>Jade Leslie: State governments across the nation work with municipalities, both large and small, to provide schooling for the children within their cities and towns. In sparsely populated locations, officials have to work within challenging constraints, attempting to offer an education that is competitive, effective, and comprehensive, but with a small tax base to support the students in their system.
Bancroft, Idaho is an intimate farming community located in the southeast part of the state. The people who reside here are a close-knit group, with their population reaching just about 400 residents. North Gem School is an entire school district in itself. It accommodates the children of Bancroft and other surrounding areas. The single school structure is large enough to accommodate its 200 students, kindergarten through twelfth grade, drawn from adjacent farms, neighborhoods, and ranches in the surrounding Gem Valley. However, the structure itself is literally splitting at the seams.
>>Jamie Holyoak: So this facility is over 100 years old. The roof is leaking and some things are happening that is just starting to show its age.
>>Jade Leslie: The North Gem School is the district’s only school building and is in need of replacement.
>>Jamie Holyoak: The thing that really concerned us is last year with our heating conversion, we had to punch some holes in the brick and the hundred-year-old bricks just went to dust, they just disintegrated as we tried to drill through them.
>>Jade Leslie: To build a new school, the district plans to hold a bond election to determine if the taxpayers would be willing to pay for a new facility. In years past, it has been a difficult plan for the district to sell to local property owners. This is an issue not just limited to Bancroft. During the last four years, communities throughout Idaho have seen a decline in approved bond elections.
>>Alan Westenskow: North Gem School District has a low tax base, relatively speaking, and because of that, that means that there are fewer properties and people who pay taxes to help spread over the need of educating students and paying for a new facility.
>>Jade Leslie: The relatively low tax base limits the district to issuing only $5 million in bonds per Idaho law, making it difficult to pay for a new building if the cost exceeds this limit, as they often do. A $5 million bond would also require an annual tax increase of $185 for a primary home valued at $100,000 without any assistance to repay the bond from the State of Idaho.
The district does currently qualify to have approximately 12% of its annual bond payment paid for by the State of Idaho through the Bond Levy Equalization Program, which helps reduce the tax impact slightly. If the bond election does not pass, the district may be forced to close down the school and the children will then be bussed to another school in a nearby district. But many staff and students feel that closing down the school would be a huge loss to the community.
Anson Christensen is a high school senior at North Gem. He transferred to North Gem with his other siblings when the family moved in with their grandparents. Since his grandmother works in the lunchroom program of the school, it is easier for her to keep tabs on her grandchildren’s academic performance.
>>Anson’s Grandmother: And so when he came here and he went to school, he found out that we talk to each other, teachers and parents know what’s going on here. It made a big difference for his life, I believe.
>>Anson Christensen: Well, at my old school, they really didn’t keep track of you at all so you could go do what you wanted. Can’t sluff school at all because within like 30 seconds my grandma’s going to know and be over there pinching me by the ear to get back to class.
>>Jade Leslie: If the North Gem district elects to build a new school, the State of Idaho provides a program, called the Idaho School Bond Guaranty Program, to help smaller communities obtain funds at lower interest rates.
>>Chris Priest: The School Bond Guaranty Program is a program where school districts issue bonds and they get the support and the backing of the sales tax for the State of Idaho. So they make an application to the State of Idaho, or to the Treasurer’s office, and they issue these bonds but they get a certificate from the State Treasurer’s office that actually enhances their creditworthiness.
>>Jade Leslie: By enhancing the creditworthiness, the North Gem District can obtain a bond at a much lower interest rate by piggybacking on the State of Idaho’s credit rating.
>>Chris Priest: Some school districts don’t have as high of a credit rating, and it’s not because they don’t have the money, it’s just by virtue of their financials. So when they come in and they make this application, the state will back them and say yes, they have the money, we use our due diligence, and all the tools that we have as far as our financials and their budgets.
>>Ron Crane: The property tax payers in each individual school districts are the ones that service that debt through property tax payments. With a lower interest rate, those property taxes are lower in that particular school district, so it is a real benefit to those rural school districts.
>>Jamie Holyoak: The people who are here are here for the long haul, and so it’s been difficult for them. Most of them went to this school and so they think it was okay for them, it’s okay for their kids. But we need to point out some of the structural issues and hope that we can get some support and also get some buy-in from them in participating in the process as we move forward.