Pocatello trustees urged to “speed up” decisions on Highland rebuild

POCATELLO — Since an April 21 fire torched part of Highland High, students and staff have been wondering what the future will look like — and that cloud of uncertainty still hangs overhead.

“That’s difficult,” Jena Wilcox, an assistant principal at Highland, told trustees at a work session Tuesday. “The sooner we can get started planning … it’s going to be huge for morale for our kids, for our staff.” 

“Our family’s living that on a day-to-day basis, so I understand that,” said Board Chair Deanna Judy, whose daughter is a student at Highland. 

Pocatello/Chubbuck School District Board Chair Deanna Judy. Photo: sd25.us.

Parents who wrote to trustees ahead of the work session also urged them to find solutions quickly, and to make major improvements to Highland, rather than just rebuild the school as it was. 

Trustees have spent months deliberating and debating next steps — especially whether to run another bond ask and if so, for what amount. While no decisions were made Tuesday, trustees seemed to agree on a few issues:

  • Opting for a bond ask — instead of seeking sponsorships and donations — to rebuild and improve the charred and outdated school. 
  • Crossing one item (improvements to gym facilities at Century High) off a potential second bond ask, thereby reducing it from $45 million to $33 million. 

“It’s the wrong time to add Century,” Trustee Heather Clarke said. 

Pocatello/Chubbuck School District Trustee Heather Clarke. Photo: sd25.us.

Raymond Knoff, a new trustee who publicly opposed the district’s last bond effort before he was elected, agreed it would be best to “concentrate on Highland.”

Pocatello/Chubbuck School District Trustee Raymond Knoff. Photo: sd25.us.

Feedback from community surveys indicated the Century add-on deterred some voters from approving the measure, Judy added. 

Trustees also seemed to agree that a bond ask would be the best way to fund a rebuild and improvements to Highland. 

Fundraising for a major facility upgrade is “not a widely-used tactic,” Courtney Fisher, the district’s communications director told trustees. 

And there would be a number of drawbacks: 

  • It likely wouldn’t raise enough for the project, and would take more time and infrastructure than the district has. 
  • It would likely mean rebuilding the school piece by piece, a strategy that Wilcox said would be demoralizing for those who work and learn at Highland.
  • It could undermine future efforts to ask the community for levies and bonds, and “cannibalize” athletic teams’ ongoing fundraising efforts, Fisher said.

“Stakes are high and failure is not an option,” she said about the path forward.

Parents speak out: “Our kids deserve better”

Ahead of the meeting, a half dozen parents emailed trustees with their concerns.

“How is it possible that even schools in small, rural communities are nicer than our 6A ranked school?” Kirsten and Michael Spitzer wrote. “Highland represents the largest number of students in any facility in this district and it feels as though we are an afterthought of this school board.”

“Our kids deserve better,” Meagan Pierson wrote, adding that the fire was out of trustees’ control, but Highland’s future is not. “A major update to Highland was overdue and is now dire.”

And they also pushed for progress: “I am quite disappointed in the lack of work towards coming up with a solution even after the bond did not pass,” Rebecca Clawson wrote. 

Alisha Bailey described the hardships her children have faced as Highland students this year, including:

  • Only one assembly, which was held outdoors due to lack of indoor space
  • Cramped halls
  • Long lunch lines
  • No home games for basketball or volleyball
  • Traveling for band and choir classes

“We truly need to find some solutions as a community to speed up this process,” she wrote.

Trustees differ on priorities, will meet again next week

Judy said she wants Highland’s rebuild to put it on par with similar 6A schools in Idaho. 

Trustee Angie Oliver has traveled to many of those schools for sporting events: “These are really nice high schools. Highland does not look like any of them,” she said. 

The school’s auditorium (which did not burn) is among its outdated facilities, and cannot accommodate the school’s band or choir performances, Highland Principal Brad Wallace said. 

Pocatello/Chubbuck School District Trustee Angie Oliver. Photo: sd25.us.

Judy floated the idea of rebuilding Highland without a new auditorium to reduce costs, a suggestion that other trustees and Highland administrators opposed.

“You have one more shot, and if you pare it down enough, people are going to discount it completely and you’re going to lose voters,” Wilcox said. 

Judy also discussed at length the option of adding an outdoor commons area at Highland, complete with a gas fireplace. Other trustees and Highland administrators discouraged the idea, and said the focus should be on getting displaced students, who are traveling off campus for classes and practices in temporary locations like churches, back at Highland. 

“It’s about prioritizing our largest needs,” Wilcox said. “Let’s get those met first, before we start adding on other projects.”

Trustees will meet again during a regular board meeting next week. 

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro

Reporter Carly Flandro works in EdNews’ East Idaho bureau. A former high school English teacher, she writes about teaching, learning, diversity, and equity. You can follow Flandro on Twitter @idahoedcarly and send her news tips at [email protected].

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