Charter school could make historic Idaho Falls building home

IDAHO FALLS – Roughly 30 people gathered inside the historic O.E. Bell building near downtown Idaho Falls Monday to voice concerns over plans to remodel the structure into a charter school – the proposed home of Alturas International Academy, which could open its doors at the location in 2017-18.

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Locals gather to hear proposals for turning the O.E. Bell Building into a charter school

Attendees voiced a variety of concerns, including how the school’s 250 elementary students will affect enrollment at other Idaho Falls public schools, parking on surrounding streets and the relocation of organizations currently leasing parts of the building, which opened as a junior high in 1927 but was renovated for office space in 1999.

The meeting was conducted by representatives of Erstad Architects, the Boise firm handling potential renovations, and Building Hope, a nonprofit organization that helps charter schools receive loans for needed facilities. Bluum CEO and charter school advocate Terry Ryan also attended.

The city of Idaho Falls requested that Erstad hold the meeting to gather public input. Roughly 25 of those in attendance were parents of prospective Alturas students.

Hersh Mynarcik, one of the few neighbors in attendance, has lived across the street from the O.E. Bell building for 21 years.

“What does the Idaho Falls district think of plans to put a charter school in here?” he asked.

Students from other surrounding districts will also attend the school, said former Idaho Falls district teacher Michelle Ball, who will be an instructor and administrator at Alturas. This should ease the loss-of-enrollment burden for Idaho Falls – but she didn’t provide any numbers.

“I think, in the long run, this school will be a good thing for us and (the Idaho Falls district),” she said.

After failed attempts last year to open the charter school under the Idaho Falls district’s direction, Ball and some of her students’ parents at Sunnyside Elementary School organized a home school that utilized the same teaching methods Alturas will adopt.

“It’s kind of like if you want something done, you do it yourself,” said parent and Alturas board member Candise Gilbert.

Building Hope is now in the process of purchasing the building, said Dru Damico, vice president of real estate development. Alturas will then lease the building from Building Hope at an interest rate of “between five and six percent” for five years, Damico added.

Alturas plans to purchase the school from Building Hope after the five-year period, which will give the school time to grow financially, said Alturas principal Steven Andrew.

Bluum will subsidize the lease for Alturas if needed.

“Bluum is sort of a fallback for us,” said Alturas board member Jared Allen.

The former Melaleuca building on Yellowstone in Idaho Falls will house the new charter in 2016-17. The Grand Teton Council, which now owns the former Melaleuca building, has offered Alturas a home for the 2017-18 school year, if plans to occupy the O.E. Bell building fall through, Allen said.

Ball and other Alturas teachers will instruct multiage classes of first-through-third graders or fourth-through-sixth graders. Students will be placed into learning groups based on assessment data, rather than age.

“Students show substantial growth under the multiage classroom model because they are taught at their instructional levels throughout the day,” said Ball.

Other aspects of the curriculum include project-based learning, second-language acquisition and four-day school weeks. Fridays will be used for teacher collaboration, Ball said.

A final decision on zoning the O.E. Bell building for school use will likely be reached at a July 19 public hearing, said one Idaho Falls city official. The city could approve or deny the application, or postpone the plan.

“We are mostly concerned about things like building access, parking and its impact on the surrounding neighborhood,” said Kerry Beutler, assistant planning director for the city.

Though no plans are in place to add square footage to the O.E. Bell building, Alturas board members hope to convert nearly half the existing parking lot into a playground – increasing the demand for parking spaces on the surrounding city streets.

The city of Idaho Falls requires that elementary and junior high schools designate one parking space for every classroom in a school, plus five additional spaces overall.

But the school has received funding for busing, Ball said. A proposed dropoff area behind the building will also ease parking demands.

Andrew Erstad of Erstad Architects said the O.E. Bell building is a prime location – primarily because it once was a school. He pointed to the gymnasium – currently lined with office cubicles – and hallways still equipped to accommodate lockers.

But the building still needs some major schoolhouse upgrades, Erstad said, including doubling the number of current restrooms in order to accommodate the potential influx of students.

According to county records, Hannah’s Holdings, LLC is the current owner of the property. A law firm and an architectural firm are among the building’s current lessees. These parties “understand” that they will likely have to make way for the school in 2017-18, said Damico. One of the lessees, Arugula Deli, which occupies a portion of the basement, could stay – and possibly provide lunch options for students.

Tenants were aware of a shift in ownership, said the building’s current manager, who declined to give her name. She declined further comment.

But Kevin Dekold, executive vice president of CRSA, an architectural firm currently leasing space on the north end of the building, said he “knew very little” about plans to sell.

“We are in a month-to-month agreement here, so it’s not a huge deal,” he said. “I guess these kinds of things happen. I just haven’t been told very much about what’s going on.”

Dekold added that he had not been informed about Monday’s meeting.

Disclosure: Idaho Education News and Bluum are both funded through grants from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.