Teachers have quit.
A physician and his family decided not to move here. And an international mail-order catalog company has trouble luring executives to its headquarters in Sandpoint.
The problem? Bonner County’s tumultuous school system and dysfunctional reputation.
“I have a lot of things I can sell (people) on in Sandpoint. When it comes to academics … it becomes a much more difficult sell for me,” said Randy Long, a recruiter for Coldwater Creek, the mail-order firm.
Long and a dozen community leaders, calling themselves Citizens for Quality Education, met with school trustees Friday.
The group, along with another 50 residents, pointed out the obvious. The school district has serious problems. There’s a budget deficit and lack of money to buy books, supplies and fix buildings. There’s a lack of leadership, distrust and a nasty rift between teachers and the administration. One former trustee even suggested that the state take over the school district.
A state report criticizing how the district is run prompted formation of the business group that met Friday.
“We strongly believe it’s time to come together and bring about positive change in the educational system,” said Curt Hecker, Panhandle State Bank President and group spokesman.
The goal, he said, was not to point fingers and assess blame for what’s gone wrong. Instead, it’s time to fix the district.
“What I hear people saying is we are willing to put the swords down and work with each other,” Hecker said. That means putting past gripes to rest, something this district hasn’t been able to do in a decade.
Residents balk at passing levies because they distrust how and where the district spends tax dollars, residents said. Even though many positive things are going on within the district, they are often overshadowed by infighting.
“There’s a war going on.” That’s how teacher Terry Iverson described the relationship between teachers and some central office administrators.
Hecker and his group understand that, but made a plea to wipe the slate clean. “If we are not working in harmony with each other,” Hecker said, “it’s going to be impossible to do anything for our kids.”
Long said the process is going to require a leap of faith by all those involved. “We are also going to have to be willing to hold hands with some people we were not willing to hold hands with before,” he said.
About 535 residents signed an ad that ran in one local newspaper Friday supporting the effort by Citizens for Quality Education. The group offered financial help, moral support and their business savvy to school trustees. District officials gladly accepted the helping hand.
“We believe our school district can, and should, be known throughout Idaho for quality education,” the group said in its ad. “We are all accountable for the welfare of this community, and the education of our children.”
During the two-hour roundtable discussion, many ideas were tossed out on how to fix what was broken. But teacher Woody Aunan had a different perspective.
“I keep hearing, it’s broken, it’s broken, but it’s not broken in a lot of places. We have some success. We should be saying how do we make it better.”
In the end there were no concrete solutions. The group agreed everyone involved needed a positive “attitude adjustment” to play up the good things going on in classrooms.
“There is no one answer,” Hecker said, pledging ongoing support to solve issues one at a time. “It’s time for all of us … to wipe the slate clean and begin to write a bold new chapter on developing top-rate schools for our children.”