Tuesday, June 18, 2024

West Bonner ponders school closures

Hagadone News Network | May 30, 2024 1:00 AM

PRIEST RIVER — Several elementary schools will likely be closed as part of an effort to close a $4.68 million shortfall brought about by the failure of a West Bonner County levy.

"I can't stop crying because this is our hometown," Holly Jepsen said, her voice breaking as she visibly fought back tears as residents lined up to comment on four options presented to balance the district's budget. "There are people not standing up here because they're emotional the same way I am. To see that my daughter may not have those opportunities in this town … It's not OK."

West Bonner County trustees were presented with four options, ranging from the most drastic, Option A, which would close three schools but come close to balancing the budget, to less severe options, which would keep more of the schools open but require figuring out how to bridge that gap.

“I think what we have to remember is that we can do [this], board chair Margy Hall said in closing the meeting. “We will do it. It won't look pretty. We got a bunch of lemons, and they're not very great, but we will make some nice lemonade, maybe a lemon meringue pie.”

After a lengthy and often emotional discussion, the board voted to pursue the third of the four options. That plan, referred to as Option C, would close Idaho Hill and Priest Lake elementary schools, with students sent to Priest River Elementary. Both the junior high and high schools would be kept open.

Under the first plan, Option A, which would mean the most drastic cuts, the district would close Priest Lake and Idaho Hill, with all elementary students going to Priest River Elementary. The junior high school would also be closed, with students being sent to the high school building. The most drastic proposal, Option A, would leave the district with two schools, one for kindergarten through fifth grade and the other for students in sixth through 12th grade.

Under the second plan, Option B, the district would close Priest Lake Elementary and the junior high school. Idaho Hill would be kept open, and all the district's sixth graders would either go to the junior high or Idaho Hill Elementary.

The fourth proposal, Option D, would close the junior high while keeping open the district's three elementary schools. Students in grades seven to 12 would be routed to the high school.

Also discussed was the sale or lease of the district office building, with the staff being routed to one of the schools, possibly the junior high school if the facility is kept open or Idaho Hill if that school were kept open.

Bus routes would also be consolidated, and roughly 13.5 certified positions would not be refilled as teachers and administrators either retire or leave for other opportunities. Similar cuts would likely happen among the district’s facilities and classified staff. Plans to purchase several new school buses have been halted, and planned repairs to the district’s aging schools will also not take place, district officials said.

Moving landscaping and snow removal in-house could also help save funds, as would several other items. 

Dean Davis, the district’s director of finance, told the board the district began by identifying its revenue streams. The district receives about $137,900 in local funding, about $10.7 million from the state, and about $1.6 million in federal funding.

The district has roughly $380,000 in its reserve fund, a fraction of what it is recommended to have, Davis told the board.

It would be up to district administrators to decide what cuts and where, Superintendent Joe Kren said. 

“Everything depends on what you decide,” Kren told the board. “Then it’s going to be the job of the administrators to work with people one-on-one. I'm hesitant to say I'm going to cut X, X, and X with a potential of a name being associated with that, and that person may be in this room and have no idea that their job is now on the line.”

Kren said district officials would take guidance from the board’s motions and from the community’s comments to fine-tune the options presented at Wednesday’s meeting.

The district’s financial situation requires that the board take immediate action, Davis said.

"If we don't do something different or significant, we're going to have major problems in 2026 in keeping this district afloat," Davis told the board.

Many of the proposals are “pretty drastic,” Kren told the board as he brought up the first of the four options. Noting the plans were kept “close to the vest” because they recognized they were dealing with people’s lives and jobs, Kren said that while the first option was the most drastic, it also came the closest to balancing the budget.

The board also approved a motion that would give community members a chance to raise funds for extracurricular and co-curricular programs, including sports. 

A member of that group, Jared Hughes, had asked the board to allow the group to pursue funding options outside the budget. Hughes said the group planned to meet Thursday to crunch numbers on what it would cost to fund the programs. Once those numbers are known, the group would then begin working to raise those funds.

“Last year, there were two months of uncertainty after the levy failure,” Hughes said, noting the district lost roughly 140 students — the equivalent of $1.4 million in funding. “Many left due to the uncertainty of athletics. Just ask them. Please don't make the same mistake twice. We can't afford to lose any more kids or support units.”

The board also approved the creation of a funding and grant committee to research possible options for West Bonner. As part of the motion, trustees Ann Yount and Hall were named to the committee.

Board members said they hoped the cuts would be a one-year measure, giving them time to regroup as they continued efforts to move West Bonner onto firmer financial ground. While selling or leasing the district office is an option, they said they were hesitant to sell or lease any of the schools since that would place them beyond the district’s use permanently.

“None of these options are good,” trustee Paul Turco said. “I'm disappointed with all of them. I don't like any of the options that we have here. And I'm disappointed that they're the options that we have to make.”

However, of those, Option C gives the district’s students the best opportunities moving forward, even though it leaves the district in the position of having to figure out how to make up the difference for items added back in.

While many supported the third option, others said if it seemed likely the district would ultimately have to adopt the first option, it made sense to adopt it at the outset. Those who supported the third option said it was the best of the possible options, offering students the best chance. 

The board set a special meeting on Wednesday, June 5, to review what it would take to adopt Option C.