IDAHO FALLS — Bonneville School District trustees have scrapped their plan to float a $58.5 million bond issue for a new middle school this August.
The 3-2 decision followed a heated debate Wednesday over costs, and how to best handle Bonneville’s dizzying population growth.
“It really concerns me,” newly sworn-in trustee Scott Lynch told board members. “I don’t think we are all on board with this plan.”
Lynch, who won former chairman Jeff Bird’s Zone 5 seat in the May election, wasn’t sworn in when Bird and two of Bonneville’s four other trustees approved a bond issue for a new middle school.
After being sworn in on July 1, Lynch vowed to use his vote to rescind the measure.
Lynch followed through on that promise Wednesday night by motioning to rescind the middle school bond issue and aligning his vote with trustees Paul Jenkins and Chad Dance, who both opposed the measure in June.
The district will now have to rethink its approach to handling growth, including revisiting the possibility of building a $29 million elementary school.
A months-long debate over the best way to handle the district’s growth has revolved around building an elementary school to absorb increased K-6 enrollment or building a middle school to accommodate sixth graders and alleviate elementary school overcrowding.
Bonneville patrons and educators continue to voice concerns over both proposals, with some worried that moving sixth graders into the district’s middle schools could harm the kids’ learning and development. Others point out that trustees have long emphasized the need for a new middle school, and could lose credibility with patrons if they opt to build an elementary school.
Calder, who argued Wednesday that the school board had been “highly active and engaged” in its pursuit to float a middle school bond issue in August, took aim at Lynch’s rationale for ditching the measure.
“The fact that you are uncomfortable is not the issue we are talking about tonight,” Calder said.
Calder also expressed frustration that the district had not yet requested quotes from an architect for the now-nixed middle school.
“Since January, we’ve known that the middle school was a very real possibility,” Calder said. “I think it was poor administration of the project.”
Bonneville assistant superintendent Scott Woolstenhulme defended administrators’ decision not to request the quotes, arguing that the board did not officially settle on the middle school option until late June.
Bonneville superintendent Chuck Shackett called Calder’s criticism offensive.
“I’ve been trying very hard to stay quiet,” Shackett told Calder, “but you’re making a lot of accusations.”
Both Lynch and Shackett believe the district’s current middle schools are well-equipped to handle growth for at least another five years, rendering the need for a new elementary school more pressing. Lynch and Shackett also point to the potential savings of roughly $33 million — or about $20,000 per seat in an elementary school compared to a middle school’s $58 million price tag.
“We are trying to fix this problem with a $58 million middle school when we can fix it with $29 million elementary school,” Shackett said. “That’s not very wise when you’re using taxpayer money.”
But Calder and Landers believe an elementary school could cost patrons more in the long run, since the district will likely have to build a middle school to absorb further population growth in the next five to seven years.
Landers argued that scrapping the middle school option could jeopardize the district’s ability to get any measure passed, since it forces Bonneville to now pursue a solution in November, at the earliest.
Bonneville’s deadline to file for the August election has passed and the nearby Idaho Falls School District is considering floating a bond issue for a large-scale high school redesign project, estimated at $100 million, on ballots in November.
Both districts’ bond issues could end up on the same county ballot.
Idaho Falls School District spokesman Margaret Wimborne told Idaho Education News Tuesday that trustees in her district have yet to settle on a date to run their redesign bond issue, but November is a possibility.
Idaho requires a two-thirds supermajority for any bond issues to pass — a hurdle Bonneville has struggled to clear in the past. Bonneville’s bond issue for a new high school failed three times before passing in November 2015.