Trustees face difficult choices after Pocatello fire, and time is running out

POCATELLO — The flames that engulfed Highland High School this spring have long since been doused, but school officials are still putting out fires — like how to rebuild, get students back in classrooms, and prepare for population growth. 

And the pressure is on.  

Architects and designers are waiting for direction from trustees, students will be back in class in less than two months, and if trustees decide to pursue a bond issue, the November election is right around the corner. 

Board members, district leaders and architects and designers met Wednesday to consider their options. But after the nearly two-hour meeting, it seemed leaders were just as undecided about next steps as they were at the start. 

Part of the holdup could be that trustees face imperfect options, each with its own drawbacks: 

  • Option 1: Rebuild Highland and keep it as a high school.
    • Drawback: A growing student population might soon make the school obsolete. Plus, the school’s limited parking is already a problem. 
  • Option 2: Try to buy land adjacent to Highland, to expand and improve the campus and keep it as a high school.
    • Drawback: The land might be too expensive. 
  • Option 3: Rebuild Highland’s ancillary facilities, like a gym, and turn it into a middle school or mega elementary. Then build a new high school, probably through a bond, to have room for growth. 
    • Drawback: The bond might not receive the required two-thirds supermajority support. The district would also need to secure land for the new school. 

With a difficult choice to make, board members wanted more information. 

Trustee Deanna Judy wanted more patron feedback before deciding, even after a recent survey gathered about 3,000 responses. Judy disagreed with the way information was presented in the survey, and wanted another opportunity to rephrase the options and seek feedback. 

Trustee Heather Clarke called for a comprehensive review of all buildings to see which were most in need of replacement. The review could help guide decisions, like whether to keep Highland as a high school, or turn it into an elementary or middle school. 

But both suggestions would require more time and money before a decision could be made. 

Insurance would likely pay for some, but not all, of an improved rebuild or new school

Many people are wondering about the district’s insurance money and how that will factor in. 

Jonathan Balls, the district’s director of business operations, said he doesn’t yet have a figure from the insurance company regarding how much the district has at its disposal — but that number should be available soon. 

Insurance funds would likely fully pay to restore Highland. But it’s unclear if they would also be enough to pay for enhancements or improvements. 

Insurance money would pay for a new school on a different site, but some of that money would still be needed to get the current school up to par to become a middle or elementary school — so the district and/or taxpayers would need to pay for any remaining costs. 

Patrons call for facilities the whole community can use

A few patrons waited through the long meeting to address trustees at the end.

Melissa Humphries, a parent with students in the district, said a new building would have to be an asset to the whole community and benefit more than just Highland students in order for the community to back it. 

Rebecca Clawson advocated for schools to share facilities like football stadiums and auditoriums. That would cut costs and reduce cross-town rivalry. 

A third speaker, Alyssa Bailey, said there’s a need for a competitive swimming pool for the high school club swim team and shared options with trustees. 

Throughout the meeting, trustees discussed the possibility of using the rebuild to add a swimming pool, but also talked about the need to partner with the city to provide the needed facilities. 

Trustees will likely meet again next week to continue discussions about how to rebuild. 

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro reports from her hometown of Pocatello. Prior to joining EdNews, she taught English at Century High and was a reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. She has won state and regional journalism awards, and her work has appeared in newspapers throughout the West. Flandro has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and Spanish from the University of Montana, and a master’s degree in English from Idaho State University. You can email her at [email protected] or call or text her at (208) 317-4287.

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