To the apparent relief of administrators, teachers, and students, split sessions are officially off the table for Idaho Falls High School — for now, at least.
The proposed schedule change would have required half the student body to attend class from 7 a.m. to 1:25 p.m., and the other half from 1:30 p.m. to 7:55 p.m. The district’s school board was considering the solution to resolve overcrowding issues after a bond to build a new high school (and fund other projects) failed in November.
But at a board meeting Wednesday night, Superintendent James Shank firmly opposed the radical schedule change.
“I would suggest and clearly state that this is not a good idea and would ask that we pivot away from this this evening as a legitimate option that we would do,” Shank said.
One teacher, Paula Trudell, said split sessions would not be doable for her as a teacher, mom, and coach. If that switch was made, she said she’d have to find another job.
“It breaks my heart to have to look for other opportunities for employment,” she said. “Please consider teachers … I ask that you look at other options before making a drastic change.”
Christopher Powell, the principal at Idaho Falls High School, said teachers who thought they would retire at his school were considering transferring to other schools if the split sessions were to become a reality.
“We have bright teachers at Idaho Falls. They would be picked up in a heartbeat if they put their applications out there,” Powell said. “I would appreciate it if we take split sessions clearly off the table so everyone knows we’re not doing it next year and they don’t need to dust off their resumes because that’s a big concern of mine.”
Students also attended the meeting, which was held at the Idaho Falls High School library. All the seats were full, so many were standing in the back. They were there, Powell said, because they wanted a better solution: “Kids are here at the board meeting because they’re concerned and it’s important to them.”
The board agreed to table split sessions for the upcoming school year, but board member Paul Haacke cautioned to “never say never.”
“I know they’re not optimal but if this is all the facilities we’re going to get and the community keeps growing, it’s tough to say we’ll never ever consider them,” he said.
Difficult conversations like these may become more common in Idaho. As districts’ needs build up across the state, bonds are becoming more expensive and more challenging to pass – especially with the required two-thirds support. Idaho Falls’ failed bond was a record-breaking request of $250 million. Another district, Nampa, is putting a similarly high $210.2 million bond on the ballot in March.
Since 2000, 48% of bonds have failed. Failing school funding measures have prompted lawmakers to come up with more secure solutions to address aging schools, community growth, and a backlog of repair and maintenance needs. The committee hopes to have a set of proposals by the end of the month.
For now, districts are left to make hard choices in the aftermath of failed bonds.
Idaho Falls board considers slew of imperfect options as they try to balance student safety and educational opportunities
With one controversial solution crossed out, the Idaho Falls school board is now considering an array of alternatives:
- Putting another school funding measure on the ballot in March (options could include another bond or a plant facilities levy)
- Implementing five 70-minute class periods instead of six 60-minute class periods to allow for more flexible scheduling at Idaho Falls High School (core classes could then be taken just two of three trimesters instead of all of them)
- Adding zero hours to the schedule
- Busing students to other unused district facilities for classes (though arranging the busing and accommodating for the lost class time would present challenges)
- Cutting down trees in front of the high school to add new modular structures for classes
- Making new rules about traffic flow within the school to reduce congestion in high-traffic areas
- Adding more supervision during passing periods
- Converting extra space under the stadium into classrooms (though it would likely require HVAC and/or construction work)
Board members will continue discussions about which solution(s) will be best for Idaho Falls High School students next school year. According to the district, the school is at 141% capacity.
“The least destructive (solution) is whatever keeps the largest number of students and teachers that we feel safe with here at Idaho Falls High School at the same time,” Powell said.
But how many can safely be at the school is another question. Trustee Elizabeth Cogliati pointed out that carefully directing traffic and adding more supervision could help with passing periods, but wouldn’t necessarily help with evacuations when the entire student body must exit the school at once.
Powell downplayed any concerns about evacuation safety, saying students are able to exit the building within 5-6 minutes.
“I can’t remember the last time a school lit up and burned down in less than six minutes,” he said. “They can get out in an orderly fashion.”
Haacke pushed back against that comment, pointing out that drills and real-life scenarios “are night and day.”
Later in the meeting, Powell also minimized the risks students face when they walk outside the school building and cross a field to get to classes in a converted warehouse or in the stadium.
“I started teaching in ‘99, soon after Columbine, so my whole teaching career (has been) in the school shootings environment in the United States. It’s problematic, but it’s hard to look at kids and say ‘I’m so terrified of what is happening that I’m going to destroy your opportunities for education right now,’” he said.
He urged the board to carefully consider solutions to overcrowding and not overreact by turning to options like split sessions or drastically-changed bell schedules.
“It’s … an overreaction until you have a Uvalde happen, a Columbine happen, a Sandy Hook happen,” Haacke said. “I don’t appreciate that comment.”
The board will continue discussing potential solutions and asked Powell to get more feedback from teachers on their thoughts.
A proposed new high school is just one of the projects the district lost when its bond failed. It had also hoped to use the funds for two new elementary schools and extensive upgrades to Skyline High school.
The district is currently working on changing boundaries to resolve some elementary overcrowding issues and plans to host community engagement activities and events in January to get feedback and input.
“These are challenging issues, but we are committed to finding solutions,” Shank wrote in a Thursday morning message to parents and staff. “I am grateful for all the time and energy board members, administrators, teachers, parents and staff have spent working to address these issues and find solutions that are in the best interests of our students.”
He added that the board of trustees “will continue seeking community input before making any final decisions.”