Seven bond defeats and Salmon could still get a new school built

Salmon Schools Dilemma

SALMON, Idaho - Bond after bond has gone down in defeat in the Salmon School District, in fact, a bond has failed seven times. There is still a way where Salmon could end up with a new school anyway, even against the super-majority's wishes, but the bill comes with it.

"Clearly continuing to occupy the buildings over time is not an option in their current condition," said Joey Foote, superintendent of the Salmon School District.

The buildings in question are the middle school built by the Works Progress Administration under President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s and the newer elementary school built in the 1960s. The plan would be to merge these two buildings with an annex building, the life skills building, and the child development center. Then, $14.2 million later, five buildings become one and are now compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"Our school board, the board of trustees and administration, and many members of the community feel like there is an adequate risk," said Foote. He said engineering studies show serious risk to house students in the two main buildings. District maintenance director, Ken Amrstrong, showed me some of those concerns at the top of the building.

"The white over the front edge is stuff we did this summer. Basically, we'd have chunks that were ready to fall off," said Armstrong. Down at the bottom of the building, we find a crumbling foundation.

"Anytime you start seeing that white stuff (in the concrete)," he added, "is a bad thing." Everything in the classrooms was just as revealing.

"Last time I measured the slope in this floor, it was an inch and a quarter at that end. This is has all happened in the last three years," said Armstrong.

There are still single-pane windows.

"And this is the water that we took out of the system. We try flushing the system at least once a week," said Armstrong, holding a plastic jar of orange rusty water. Armstrong said a giant crack on the outside of the building happened during an earthquake in 1982. It's goes all the way through to the inside.

"Inch and an eighth is actually what it has shifted," said Armstrong. Remodeling has been suggested as an alternative fix.

"It's going cost you major bucks just to patch this little area," Armstrong said.

"Our board has examined that option of doing some remodeling and the dollar value for investment dollars into a remodel versus investing in new construction, they determined was not a good payoff for our community, just not a fiscally responsible move," said Foote. "I think it falls on the state again, to provide a safe and inviting and adequate learning environment for our students."

If the state determines that it becomes too dangerous, the state can step in and build a new building, but they'll send the bill to the voters of Salmon School District. It's called the Cooperative Funding Program. It's a state program with $25 million set aside for situations like this.

"This fund was put into place so that districts who had difficulty passing a public schools facilities bond had another mechanism and really to ensure that students around the state were attending school in safe buildings," said Marilyn Whitney with the Idaho State Board of Education.

It's been utilized before. Three years ago, the state spent $11 million of that fund to build the new Lakeside Elementary School for the Plummer/Worley School District in the panhandle.

"They, too, have a divided community. They, too, ran into some of these very same issues, but what they have now is a safe and inviting facility," said Foote.

We asked Judi Sharrett, superintendent of the Plummer/Worley School District, how the community has reacted since.

"Honestly, I have not heard a lot of opposition toward gaining a building this way since. I'm sure there are still people with strong feelings especially after the tax statements began to come out. I felt like it's been a really pretty positive thing in our community," she said.

As for Salmon, no one was willing to state their position on camera. I talked with many, both for and against a new school. Bill Guth was will to talk. He's lived in Salmon for 51 years and said the people need to know what exactly is going to be built, not just a concept of dollars per foot.

"Well, I don't think it's any worse than what we already got. We might get what we want and we might not, but I think we can put some pressure on the state; the community can, to not build an architectural wonder, to build the school we need, not the school that somebody wants," said Guth.

Salmon's plan has been drawn up by Design West of Meridian. It will go before a three-person panel headed by the executive director of the State Board of Education, Dr. Mike Rush. That panel can do one of four things: approve the Salmon plan, modify it, replace it with its own plan, or reject it all together. If the state says no, rejected, what does Salmon do?

"We continue to run a bond," said Foote after a deep sigh.

If necessary, Foote said they would be forced to make basic modifications to the buildings, yet that would still require a capital construction levy passing with a two-thirds majority vote and they've only gotten as high as 48.2 percent in the past.

"The board of trustees has been charged as an elected body with acting in the best interest of the children of this community and providing as much of a quality education as they can given the funding limitations that the state provides us. This is the direction the board has gone and they have agonized over this," said Foote.

There are five members on that board. Three have students. One is a former teacher. If the state comes and builds it and then gives the bill to the voters, how does Foote deal with that?

"I've had to wrestle with that as we've gone through every election, every election cycle," he said. "We have to do what we believe, with the data and the information that we have, is in the best interest of the safety of our students number one, the quality of the education of our students number two, and then we have to act in a fiscally responsible manner. we're using public dollars. We have to act in a fiscally responsible manner with public dollars."

The state panel has 35 calendar days after receiving notification that an application has been submitted to make a finding on that application. The panel has to notify the applicant within 90 days of receiving it. Foote will be in Boise Dec. 18 to make his case. If the state approves it, a construction manager will be appointed to oversee the project. At the earliest, construction would start in the spring of 2013, with completion in the fall of 2014.

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