Progress report: Districts start spending bond and levy dollars

A month after Idaho voters approved $695 million in school bond issues and levies, districts are starting to get projects rolling.

The West Ada School District is working on a long-awaited alternative middle school. The Kuna School District is trying to settle on the site for a new high school. The Boise School District has reworked one school project to respond to neighborhood concerns.

What’s happening? What can taxpayers and parents expect to see? Here are a few thumbnails from around the state.

West Ada

Ten-year, $160 million plant facilities levy 

For the most part, plant facilities levies cover upkeep and smaller projects — a new roof or a new heating system. “(They’re) things you won’t notice, other than the buildings will remain in good shape,” district spokesman Eric Exline said this week.

The state’s largest district will use its renewed plant facilities levy to cover projects at almost every school.

Some of the projects will be more noticeable.

West Ada will use $3.5 million to replace old classroom desktop computers. The upgrades should begin this summer.

Meanwhile, Pathways Middle School should get its permanent home. For nearly a decade, the alternative school has crammed about 130 seventh- and eighth-graders into a collection of 10 portables.

And West Ada could be back before voters next year, seeking another bond issue. Before the recession, enrollment routinely increased by 1,000 students a year, and the trend is moving back in that direction. Enrollment increased by 830 students in 2016-17, Exline said, and overcrowding is most acute at high schools.

Boise

Bond issue, $172.5 million

With an aggressive 10-year plan — including 22 major capital projects and maintenance projects at 41 sites — Boise is moving quickly.

The district will expand its Dennis Career-Technical Center, creating space for electrical, plumbing, heating and air conditioning courses. An expansion is in the works at Timberline High School. The old Amity Elementary School — an odd 1979 vintage school with a flood-prone earth roof — will be replaced. These three projects should be finished by the fall of 2018.

Soon after, perhaps by November 2018, Boise High School will get new performing arts classrooms and a renovation of a gymnasium built in 1936.

But despite the fast-track emphasis, the district wound up tweaking its plans to replace Whittier Elementary School west of Downtown. In response to neighborhood concerns, the district agreed to reduce parking spots, add bicycle parking spots, expand sidewalks and create space for a soccer field.

“We understand the neighborhood’s concerns,” district spokesman Dan Hollar said.

At the same time, he said, the district has to address academic realities. The current school is nearly 70 years old and overcrowded. Whittier is home to a popular dual-language English-Spanish immersion program — and due to Boise’s open enrollment policy, the program is available to any student who wants to attend.

Boise’s Planning and Zoning Commission approved the revised Whittier plan Monday.

Coeur d’Alene

Bond issue, $35.5 million; two-year, $32 million supplemental levy 

The district hopes to hit some big bond issue milestones before the end of the school year — selecting an architect by May, getting most of its financing in place by June. But in the meantime, Coeur d’Alene hopes to check off a few smaller capital projects this summer. That means parents and student might notice a new gym floor or a repaved parking lot, for example.

When all the work is done, the North Idaho district will have a new elementary school, and both high schools will have added classrooms. The district hopes to have its bond issue projects wrapped up by the summer of 2019.

Coeur d’Alene will use some of its supplemental levy money on a long-term job: replacing a fleet of some 60 school buses. Depreciation schedules recommend replacing buses after 12 years, and many of the district’s buses are older than that, Superintendent Matthew Handelman said.

By around Christmas break, the district could have about a half dozen new buses on the road. One key difference: The new buses will have shoulder harnesses, unlike the rest of the fleet.

The new supplemental levy replaces a $15 million-a-year levy — and for the most part, the money will be used to keep existing programs whole. The levy comprises 22 percent of the district’s budget, and the money reduces class sizes and maintains extracurricular programs. “These are things that our community has grown accustomed to,” Handelman said. “You would certainly notice if they weren’t there.”

Lewiston

Bond issue, $59.8 million

Getting buy-in to replace Lewiston’s 89-year-old high school was a long time coming.

Now the district is starting the groundwork, as it hopes to open the doors of a new high school in the fall of 2020.

As architects start turning a floor plan into a design, they will meet later this month with faculty and trustees. Bonds are likely to go out for sale in May.

Part of the job too is building on community interest — and community pride.

Before taking a third run at a bond issue, the district held 58 “cottage meetings,” small question-and-answer sessions at homes and businesses. The resulting voter interest surprised Superintendent Bob Donaldson, and the numbers are indeed startling. Just four months after a presidential election, about 1,000 first-time voters registered at the polls, just to vote in March’s election. The bond issue passed with 75 percent voter support.

The voter outreach left an impression. On Wednesday night, at a parent-teacher meeting, one parent asked Donaldson how he planned to keep the community in the loop about the high school project. He says he can envision holding another batch of cottage meetings.

“The community really appreciated that, I think,” Donaldson said.

Kuna

Bond issue, $40 million; two-year, $5 million supplemental levy

On Monday, Kuna ordered $600,000 worth of textbooks and electronic class materials — tools the district will use next fall as it adopts a new math curriculum aligned to the Idaho Core Standards.

The district is making good on its plan to use supplemental levy money for long-overdue curriculum updates. Next up: replacing the social studies curriculum, and retiring history textbooks that still list Bill Clinton as president.

The work on the bond issue is a little more complicated.

A district committee is studying potential sites for a high school. One site of donated land has some added costs: water and sewer installation and road improvements that would run about $4 million, Superintendent Wendy Johnson said. Johnson wants the committee to pick a site by the end of the school year, so Kuna can stay on schedule and open a new high school in 2019.

While the new high school is the big-ticket item, the bond issue will also pay for elementary school additions, and convert an existing elementary school into a second middle school. All the moving parts give teachers a chance to think creatively about education — to think about designing classrooms around curriculum, instead of the other way around.

“It’s actually really exciting,” Johnson said.

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