The Avery School District, with the sparkling St. Joe River at its heart, is long on scenery but short on students.
Ironically, its solution to low enrollment is one being sought by North Idaho’s overcrowded urban districts.
Officials here want to build a new school.
Their 35 students are taught now in two mountain towns, 24 miles apart along the St. Joe River. There are two classrooms in Avery, one in Calder. Bringing the children together would offer educational advantages, according to their teachers.
A single modern school between the towns also would eliminate constant repairs to the existing schoolhouses, built in 1923 and 1917.
Rick Marshall can size up the need for change as well as anyone. It’s his job to maintain the old buildings. He and his wife, Jonette, believe their daughters would benefit from the smaller classes, bigger gym and computer lab a new school would offer.
Still, Marshall will feel an emotional tug if residents vote on Oct. 22 to build a school and close the old ones. When his oldest girl leaves eighth grade this year, she’ll represent the fourth generation to graduate from Avery.
“I have a lot of ties to this school,” he said, standing in the hallway. “My grandmother came here as a second-grader.”
Avery once was a busy place, thanks to a booming timber industry and the presence of a railroad yard. The town had its own high school.
The railroad is long gone. There are fewer logging jobs. And the mainstay of the economy, the U.S. Forest Service, is cutting back.
The Avery district already has closed one elementary school. That happened in 1990, when the Forest Service office in Clarkia was reduced to a work center and staff members were moved out. The remaining Clarkia-area kids now go to school in St. Maries, as do all of the Avery district’s high school students.
More recently, the Avery Ranger District was consolidated with the one in St. Maries. That means more young Forest Service professionals, whose children help fill the schools, are leaving.
Its three dozen students makes the Avery district’s enrollment the smallest in North Idaho. That suits part-time district Superintendent Richard Snook just fine. He retired from the Lakeland School District, which has 100 times more students.
The Avery district’s teachers rave about being here, too. There are three of them, plus a part-time music instructor.
“I just love small schools,” said Becky Ware, who has taught at Calder for seven years and enjoys giving individual attention to the students. “I’ve just about raised a lot of these kids.”
Ware teaches kindergarten through eighth grade in the high-ceilinged Calder building. There are seven students in her big, bright classroom.
At the red-brick Avery school, classes are divided into the “big kids” and the “little kids.” Ken Martin teaches 10 students in kindergarten through fourth grade. Joe Kunkel teaches the 17 students in grades five through eight.
It’s a trick juggling so many lesson plans in one classroom, teachers said. The students have few chances to learn alongside students of their own age.
Mixing age groups has its social drawbacks, too. More sophisticated older kids can give younger ones “an earful,” said Kunkel.
At the new school, there would be fewer grades in each classroom.
“To put third grade, fourth grade and fifth grade together - that’s going to be fun,” said Kunkel.
The school would be built on a hillside east of Marble Creek.
Potlatch Corp. has offered to donate 30 acres along the St Joe River Road. A small part of that would be leveled off for the four-classroom school.
The timber company made the same offer in 1994.
That year, 57 percent of the voters - 83 of them - said “yes” to a new school. The measure failed by nine votes, because Idaho requires a two-thirds majority approval on school bonds.
If the bond passes, property taxes would increase an estimated $29.81 a year on a $40,000 property.
About 90 percent of the tax increase would be paid by two corporate forestland owners, Potlatch and Plum Creek, according to school board member Liz Codoni of Calder.
Codoni thinks a new school could attract families to communities along the upper St. Joe River, or help them decide to stay.
If the bond doesn’t pass, one of the existing schools may be closed anyway, she said. Enrollment is so low at Calder that the school needs special permission from the state to continue to operate, she said.
“Closing one school or the other would cause more division than we have now,” she said. “Passing the bond will bring the river together.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Map of area.