Hearing on levy challenge reset

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SANDPOINT — A court hearing over the Lake Pend Oreille School District’s $12.7 million indeterminate levy has been pushed back to allow the court to consider a motion to amend a challenge to the levy, which was approved by voters in November.

After a 20-minute discussion on the case, First District Judge Barbara Buchanan opted to reschedule the hearing and postpone a decision until mid-March.

The motion seeks to amend a challenge to the district levy filed by Don Skinner on Dec. 23, to include additional information and documentation, Skinner’s attorney, Stephen Smith, told Buchanan on Wednesday. That information would show that mandatory requirements would stay mandatory after an election, which would no longer require his client to prove that the election outcome would have been different if the tax impact language had been included on the ballot.

“I’m just hoping that if we were to consolidate the hearing on those motions with the district’s motion, you would potentially have the same issues in law,” Smith said, noting cases heard in California and Florida. “It’s just that they had a standard they thought was correct and I think from what I’m reading the correct standard is different and it’s what set out in these cases and what is set out in our amended complaint.”

However, the district’s attorney, Cathy Silak of Hawley Troxell, asked the court to continue forward with the district’s motion for judgment on the pleadings in favor of the district and dismiss Skinner’s complaint with prejudice. The matter has been before the court, with the district’s motion, the plaintiff’s reply and the district’s response, she said.

“It doesn’t detract from the potential of resolving this matter on our motion. None of the facts, none of the law is really in dispute,” Silak said.

However, Buchanan said, because the case may be the first of its kind in Idaho, she was going to reset the hearing so she could look at the motion to amend the challenge to the district’s permanent levy.

In his original challenge, Skinner contended the school district failed to disclose the estimated average annual cost of the levy on the ballot as required by Idaho law and asked the courts to both declare the election results invalid. He also asked the court to prohibit the district from collecting any taxes from the levy and that the district failed to include the necessary language in the first place.

However, LPOSD said it acted in good faith and that the levy should not be overturned due to a technical error. “We feel we have a duty to protect the will of the district’s voters and are responding promptly so the issue can be heard and decided by the courts,” Lake Pend Oreille School Board officials said in a Jan. 9 statement saying it was contesting the challenge to the levy.

Voters narrowly approved a request by the LPOSD to make its $12.7 million levy permanent on Nov. 5, 2019. The measure passed at just over 51 percent, with 4,256 in favor and 4,034 against. The November vote to make the levy permanent followed approval of a supplemental levy for the same amount in March 2019.

In the initial challenge, Skinner asked the court to formally declare that, because the ballot language did not contain language required by Idaho Code, the election was invalid. “Based upon the requested declaration and determination, a permanent injunction should be issued against the collection of any taxes that might otherwise result from the election,” Skinner requested in the lawsuit.

While Skinner’s challenge calls out the omission from the election ballot of information about the cost of the levy to taxpayers per $100,000 of market value, LPOSD officials said the requirement only came into effect in July 2019 and that they had acted in good faith in submitting the question to its voters.

“The levy, its use, and impact to our taxpayers were shared over the past year through public forums, mailers to voters, radio interviews and public presentations,” district officials said in the statement. “A majority of voters passed the levy in March 2019 and voted to pass it again in November as we transitioned to an indefinite term for the prudent use of funds, maintaining the previously supported dollar amount.”

The tax cost of the levy was widely disseminated and well-known, district officials said.

“We feel the results of the election would not have been different had the per $100,000 tax cost been included on the ballot itself, and that the will of the majority should not be overturned for what was a technical error,” the statement reads.

District officials said they remain focused on and committed to the education and success of its students.

“We appreciate the support of the community and look forward to the courts’ decision on this matter so we can move forward with clarity,” trustees said in the statement.

The district said Skinner’s challenge does not allege two key factors: that the omitted language had any impact on the election results or that the election results would have been different had the language been included on the ballot.

Caroline Lobsinger can be reached by email at clobsinger@bonnercountydailybee.com and follow her on Twitter @CarolDailyBee.

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