A brand new elementary school may be vacant next year because the financially strapped Bonner County School District can’t afford to run it.
School trustees met Wednesday hoping to find a way to open Kootenai Elementary, a $1.5 million school that will be completed next week.
Residents passed a levy in 1987 to build the school along with five others. Inflation stalled the project. Now it’s four years behind schedule and several classrooms short of what was promised to patrons.
District officials fear they may disappoint residents again because there is no money to open the kindergarten through fourth-grade schoolhouse.
“For me the bottom line is we still have a deficit and I’m not willing to spend money we don’t have,” said newly elected trustee Tom Fuhriman. “I fully support opening Kootenai, but we don’t have a red cent to open that school.”
The district adopted a budget that shows a $159,000 deficit. But Fuhriman said the debt is more in the range of $415,000. Business manager Steve Battenschlag agreed, saying most of the cuts were on paper and have not been made, including about $150,000 in central office administrative staff.
“It’s not that we just don’t have the money for Kootenai, it’s that we are still about $415,000 in debt,” Fuhriman said. Just a month ago the school board voted to open the school even though they knew there was no money to operate it. Two of those board members have since left office.
The district estimated it will take another $60,000 to finish construction of Kootenai Elementary School and make it ready for students. It will take another $60,000 to maintain it for the year.
The district plans to move existing teachers from Farmin-Stidwell Elementary to the new school. Old furniture and desks will also be used. It’s not an ideal situation and some parents have balked at the idea of sending their children to Kootenai, said trustee Ann Souza.
The school will not have a full-time principal, limited playground equipment, no library and old supplies and furniture. Some parents said it makes no sense to pull their child from a school that has necessary items and send them to another school with lessthan-ideal conditions.
“I have heard from families assigned to Kootenai who are adamantly opposed to attending,” Souza said.
Still several at the meeting encouraged the board to forge ahead.
“I would like you to discuss how to open Kootenai School, not if it will open,” said resident Marilyn Porath. She sat on the committee that oversaw construction of the school. “You have a moral obligation to open it.”
The only way to get money is to pass a levy, Porath said. Part of the reason residents have rejected levies in the past is because the promised school never materialized.
“This has been 10 years in the process. If you don’t open the school you are giving people another reason not to pass a levy,” she said. “Kootenai is a trust issue.”
Porath agreed it may not be cost effective to open the school but wanted the board to open it for two years. If residents didn’t support it then or agree to fund additional classrooms, then they could consider closing the school.
The board discussed many options, including moving the central office. That would save about $4,000 a month in rent that could be used to run Kootenai. District administrators could be moved into vacant classrooms at Farmin-Stidwell Elementary.
“What is boils down to for us - hopefully someone has an answer - is where we get $60,000 to open a school,” said trustee Jerry Owens.
The school board expects to make a final decision about the school at its next board meeting in August.
That will leave little time for teachers and parents to prepare, but the board wanted to make the decision at a regular board meeting not a special meeting where few members of the public were present.