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For the week of April 26 through May 2, 2000

Campaigns address
school levy vote

"This is a better way to build buildings, thinking ahead and paying as you go instead of getting behind and borrowing to catch up."

Jim Lewis, Blaine County schools superintendent

"Just so you know, I’ve sent a letter to the [state] attorney general to request an investigation."

Tom Ruemmler, school levy critic.

Express Staff Writer

With less than a week left before voters cast their ballots on the Blaine County School District’s extensive facilities improvement plan, the district’s campaign election team is gearing up for its final push, while a handful of vocal critics denounce the plan.

The vote, scheduled for May 2 at four district schools throughout the county, will determine whether the district can levy a $4 million-per-year tax for 10 years to fund construction of a new high school and new elementary school.

A Carey School renovation, a Wood River Middle School expansion and several smaller projects to be completed over the next 10 years are also in the works.

Planners hope to convert the existing Wood River High School into a multi-use facility shared by the school district, the Blaine County Recreation District and the College of Southern Idaho.

District officials say the levy is necessary because schools are currently at capacity and, with the county population continuing to increase, likely to become overcrowded in the next several years.

Now is the right time to begin building, they say, because the district can use a levy to pay for construction rather than a bond.

Unlike a bond, a levy does not require the district to borrow money, reducing the amount of interest paid. That amount could be as much as $28 million over the next decade, the district says.

"This is a better way to build buildings," schools superintendent Jim Lewis said, "thinking ahead and paying as you go instead of getting behind and borrowing to catch up."

Nevertheless, the plan is not without critics.

A full-page advertisement in local newspapers last week accused the school district of misleading the public about the need for the levy. The district could pay for the $40 million in construction simply by cleaning up bureaucratic inefficiencies, the ad said, an idea the school district vehemently refutes.

Created by part-time Hailey resident Tom Ruemmler, the ad uses enrollment, test score and budget numbers, provided by the district, Ruemmler said, to elaborately show that Blaine County spends more money per student than any other Idaho school district, yet ranks low in academic achievement.

District officials, however, say that Ruemmler’s claims are statistical smoke and mirrors at their worst.

"It’s just poor mathematics," superintendent Lewis said during an interview last week, "unless you’re trying to use any figures you can to make your point."

Separately, a letter to the Idaho Mountain Express last week denounced the district’s choosing to pay for the plan with a levy.

A levy, the letter said, requires only a 55 percent voter approval, rather than the two-thirds majority that a bond requires.

The letter also criticizes the district for holding the election on May 2 and for having a complex absentee voting process.

The critic declares that fewer voters are in Blaine County this time of year. However, school officials point out that holding the election after May 2 would delay implementation of the plan by a year.

Considering that the school levy is by far the largest in the county’s history, however, response to it has been overwhelmingly positive.

One explanation for the relative lack of opposition is that some believe criticizing the levy could cause them to be labeled anti-children or anti-education.

Theresa Comber, working for The Lucas Marketing Group in Ketchum, has been donating her time and marketing skills to the campaign. During a telephone interview on Monday, she said she hopes there are no "naysayers."

"It wouldn’t be very popular in a valley that cherishes its children," she said.

Comber plans to work extensively with the district’s election campaign team between now and May 2 creating newspaper advertisements, mailing election reminder post cards and orchestrating 60 radio spots.

Richard Kimball, an election team co-chairperson, will likely lead five groups of canvassers on a door-to-door campaigning blitz this weekend.

To date, the district’s election team has raised some $10,000 in donations from local businesses and individuals for the cause, Comber said.

During a telephone conversation Monday, Ruemmler declined to disclose the amount he has spent on his campaign against the levy.

Despite the criticism, superintendent Lewis said at his office last week that a major concern of the district is to inform the public of planned facilities improvements. What’s more, he said, the district has been working with the public for almost a year to draft the plan.

"The only way to undergo a large program like this is to ask the public," he said. "I really think our group has done a good job of making people aware of the issues."

Nevertheless, Ruemmler, in his advertisement and during an interview, accused the district of misleading the public.

"Just so you know," he said, "I’ve sent a letter to the [state] attorney general to request an investigation."

Dismissing Ruemmler, Lewis said proposed improvements have generated "a lot of excitement," not just with students and parents, but also with senior citizens. He said this group could benefit from a wider variety of classes offered by an expanded College of Southern Idaho extension; and from the Blaine County Recreation District, which would be able to offer expanded services.


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