IDAHO FALLS — The Bonneville School District will put a $35.3 million bond issue for a new middle school and other minor structural upgrades on the March ballot. But is it enough?
For six months, trustees grappled with floating a measure to build both a new middle school and a new elementary school to further quell the district’s long-running overcrowding problem. Concerns over floating the measures simultaneously prompted the school board to drop plans for a $25 million elementary school and opt solely for the middle school option this March.
The decision capped off — for now — a months-long, contentious debate among trustees, and the measure’s reduced price tag has garnered support from groups that have vigorously opposed school bond issues in the past.
“We urge those who helped us defeat bad bonds in the past to now join with us to support this bond for a new middle school,” said Halli Stone, spokesperson for D93 Citizens, a local conservative group.
However, some patrons say they feel robbed by the school board’s decision to drop the option for a new elementary school, which would have included 15 additional classrooms to serve as integrated space for some 200 K-6 special education students.
“We need all of it,” said Bonneville High School parent Hollie Giglio. “It’s frustrating. (Trustees) should do like they’ve always said and let the public decide.”
Giglio will support the proposal for a new middle school come March, citing overcrowded schools. Not all parents feel the same way.
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“I can’t vote in favor of it,” parent Mary Wilding recently wrote on Facebook. “The board needs to know that all students matter! Especially the young ones and even more (those with) special needs.”
The debate over extra special education space at a newly built elementary school dominated November school board discussions. Proponents point to three major advantages of the added space:
- Students with multiple special needs would benefit from easier access to a spectrum of services provided under one roof.
- Health professionals and teachers now forced to bounce between several schools in the district would more easily collaborate and eliminate travel time.
- The plan would free up space at other elementary schools, including Mountain Valley, Summit Hills and Discovery elementary schools, which now house a large proportion of the district’s current K-6 special education enrollment.
Trustees had considered adding the elementary school equipped with integrated special education space to the ballot on a contingent basis — it could only pass if the middle school bond issue passed. Nicholas Miller, a lawyer at Hawley Troxell law firm, told the school board on Jan. 17 that tying measures together this way could conflict with Idaho law by encouraging “log rolling,” or forcing proponents of one measure to approve another.
The school board then voted 4-1 to put just the middle school request on the March ballot, following concerns from trustee Greg Calder that running the measures unlinked could create dissension among voters, possibly resulting in the failure of both bond issues.
All trustees, including Calder, acknowledge that an elementary school is needed. They disagree, however, about when.
Trustee Scott Lynch, who cast the only dissenting vote for the middle school bond issue, wanted both measures to run independently in March. During the same meeting, trustee Chad Dance said he hopes to see the elementary school option brought before voters early enough for it to be built before the currently proposed middle school. School board chairman Paul Jenkins echoed Dance’s sentiment during a board meeting Wednesday.
On the other hand, Calder and trustee Amy Landers think the school board should take more time to gauge the situation. At minimum, they say, the school board should see how the March middle school measure fares.
“I’m very uncomfortable committing to (an elementary school bond issue) by August,” Calder said.
Bonneville School District assistant superintendent Scott Woolstenhulme said trustees have time to mull options. Woolstenhulme estimates that the school district could operate for up to four more years without a new elementary school, with a couple caveats:
- The district would have to boost its use of mobile units from 17 to between 24 and 26.
- Trustees would have to shift some kids at fast-growing elementary schools to others with stagnate or waning enrollment by carving up new boundaries.
Those hoping for a new elementary school and integrated special education facilities in the district will have to clear at least one more hurdle: Idaho’s supermajority requirement for bond issues to pass.
That could get more difficult with time. School administrators say the $35.3 million middle school measure won’t raise the district’s current property tax levy rate of $5.79 per $1,000 of assessed value. An additional $25 million for a new elementary school in the next year would make that claim harder to make, in a school district where homeowners already pay a growing price for population growth and where other school bond issues have failed in the last decade.