November 9, 1997 in Nation/World

School Disparity An Underclass Of Schools Facilities Crumbling As Rich-Poor Gap Widens

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Tags:series

FIRST OF TWO PARTS

Second-grade teacher Bonnie Runa suffered nightmares for weeks after a bank of fluorescent lights peeled from the ceiling and crashed into her classroom.

The thousand-pound metal fixture smashed onto her desk and across a small rug where students gather.

It was 12:15 p.m.

Story time.

But Runa was running late and hadn’t started the reading circle.

The impact embedded shards of glass into the wooden desks of students, and new fears into their seemingly safe existence.

“God was watching over us,” Runa recalled, “or I would have had dead children here.”

The dangerous conditions at Washington Elementary are emblematic of a growing underclass of schools in Idaho. Many do not meet fire, safety and health codes. Some have asbestos and many are not handicapped accessible.

Exasperated superintendents refer to their school hallways as deathtraps. Weary maintenance workers tinker with old boilers they call “high pressure bombs.”

Yet in a few, upwardly mobile communities, such as Boise and Coeur d’Alene, there are new state of-the-art buildings.

Eagle High School in Meridian has a high-tech career center with Hewlett-Packard computers, an espresso bar and a costume changing room for drama students.

Coeur d’Alene’s 3-year-old, $16.9 million Lake City High School “makes me drool,” one superintendent in the region said.

Gap widens

The gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening, school officials say, because Idaho is one of the few states that do not earmark money for school construction.

Building projects must be paid for by local taxpayers through bonds, which require two-thirds approval of the voters, or levies, which are based on a district’s debt capacity.

State legislators insist safe schools and new buildings aren’t their responsibility.

Landowners in many rural, lowincome communities, however, resent carrying the burden alone and regularly vote down levies and bond proposals.

Caught in the middle are the school districts.

More than 20 districts decided in 1990 to sue the state over the lack of financial support.

That lawsuit was dismissed for the second time on Oct. 30, but school officials plan to appeal to the state Supreme Court, if necessary.

In the meantime, buildings are so dilapidated that federal officials have stepped in to replace a section of one school they’ve deemed a potential disaster.

Four schools in North Idaho collapsed last winter, and another in Latah County was ruled unfit to occupy.

Half of Arco’s high school was torn down because of safety and health violations this year, including pack rats under the high school and piles of dead mice in school walls, concession stands and home economics rooms.

Midvale school’s old septic system pumps raw sewage into the Weiser River.

Other schools report high mold spore counts and bad air circulation.

Local voters’ discretion

Idaho residents are left to wonder how it is that Coeur d’Alene elementary students can design their own computer Web pages while Evergreen Elementary in Moyie Springs doesn’t even have a library.

Such amenities are left to the discretion of local voters.

Relatively wealthy districts regularly approve extra property tax levies.

In Meridian, the fastest-growing district in Idaho, inexpensive land and a booming population keep taxes low.

Voters pass bonds and levies, including a $20.9 million bond issue last year to build four elementary schools.

But in Bonner, Latah, Shoshone and Boundary counties and parts of Kootenai County, economic stagnation, taxpayer revolts and district distrust have scuttled 19 bond elections since 1990.

Schools in these counties make up part of the $649 million in unfunded Idaho school building projects, according to a recently updated study.

A 1996 U.S. General Accounting Office study reported 87 percent of Idaho schools need upgrading and 64 percent of Idaho schools had at least one unsatisfactory environmental factor, such as poor air circulation.

Ninety-one percent reported insufficient fiber optic cable capacity and 64 percent lack modems for computer Internet access.

“Our kids are going to be behind when they go out into the world,” said Teresa Asbill, mother of two Priest River High School students and a school board member. “There’s a major impact when a school doesn’t have the updated materials it needs.”

Legal action

The school districts claim in their lawsuit that the Legislature is not maintaining the general, uniform, thorough system of public, free education the Constitution requires.

Despite the dismissal, the districts don’t intend to let their lawsuit crumble alongside their schools.

“We have an issue we think is real and fair for kids in Idaho and we’ve never seen the inside of a courtroom,” said Jack Hill, Moscow schools superintendent.

Inside classrooms, students are succeeding despite challenges such as double-shifting in Post Falls that requires teachers be at school by 6 a.m.

Evergreen Elementary in Moyie Springs has no gymnasium, library or lunchroom, but standardized test scores are in the top 10 percent of the nation.

“When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade,” explained Sharon Weisman, principal at Bonners Ferry Junior High, which consists of four portable buildings and the remaining half of the old high school.

The moldy locker room and bad ventilation at Sandpoint’s junior high defies what physical education and health teacher Enid Trenholm teaches in class.

“Despite all of this, we manage,” Trenholm said. “But you can only manage in that kind of mode for so long before the building falls on top of you.”

The “freeze or fry” boiler heating system provides stifling heat or chilly drafts when students are dressing for class. One recent day it was 80 degrees inside as a group of sweaty eighth-grade girls dressed after P.E.

“It sucks,” responded a chorus of frank young voices when asked about their school.

“It’s so old I had the same locker that my mom did,” Melissa Huff said.

The elementary school in St. Maries is so old there still are clearly marked separate entrances for boys and girls. But the school is in good condition, thanks to meticulous maintenance, community volunteerism and the $395,000 supplemental levies that pass every year.

“I think it is the trust people have in our superintendent and board,” said Jerry Bayley, high school principal. If there’s extra money after a levy passes, the district lowers property taxes.

“It’s the effort and the idea,” Bayley said. “If you can knock 10 or 15 bucks off your property taxes, that’s nice.”

Volunteers help

Helping hands also save money. When demolishing the old high school was estimated to cost $150,000, St. Maries businessman Jack Buell showed up the next day with dump trucks and a crew of men who dismantled the school in two days.

Buell once cut the district a $15,000 check for a state-of-the-art scoreboard, but refused recognition for the gift.

Few districts have Jack Buells, however. Bonner County struggles to maintain 25 buildings over a span of 2,000 square miles - an area twice the size of Rhode Island.

“This knee-jerk reaction is really wearing,” said head of maintenance Sid Rayfield, a handyman in demand. “If something goes wrong we drop one fire to get to another.”

In 18 years, Rayfield’s seen what nickel-and-dime projects buy - more trouble, more money, more lawsuits. When the roof of the high school gym collapsed last winter, some residents blamed Bonner County for not keeping snow off school roofs.

But maintenance workers shoveled every day after Thanksgiving, Rayfield said. Two slipped and suffered serious back injuries, one injured his wrist and another suffered carpel tunnel syndrome.

The shoveling causes leaks and chipped paint, as well, which gives insurance companies reason to deny reimbursements. Patched chain saw gouges stripe the high school roof where workers sawed through ice last winter.

District officials calculated it would have taken 80 men, working eight hours a day, 39 days to shovel every roof in the district, which has 1 million square feet of roof space.

Had the district bought proper roofing in the first place, such problems could have been avoided.

Good planning also could have prevented five schools from being built on property that’s too low, causing water to bubble up through floors leaving rot and mold.

District overwhelmed

Bonner County Superintendent Max Harrell said the magnitude of the district’s burden is so great it can’t be solved locally.

The trend countywide is no new taxes. That’s why the state should shoulder some construction costs, Harrell said.

“I don’t think it is the fault of that second-grade kid sitting in a classroom with poor lighting and bad air circulation that he lives in Bonner County,” Harrell said. “If he were in Boise he wouldn’t be in a classroom like that.”

But Bonner County residents have said publicly they are hesitant to give their tax money to an administration they don’t believe manages money well.

Bonner County also falls victim to in-fighting, with three distinct communities vying for attention. Priest River lost two lumber mills and many students over the past two years, while 28 miles away in Sandpoint, high school enrollment is on the rise.

“You have different mind-sets, different economic bases and different communities that aren’t always impacted the same,” said Asbill, a Priest River parent.

Claims of administrative bloat have surfaced in Boundary County. But Weisman scrutinized the budget last year and says the criticism is misguided.

“It’s just not there. We’ve put Band-Aids on things that needed major surgery for years.”

A landowner herself, Weisman agrees the system socks a minority of people with the majority of the bill. “But I say let’s get together on this and get something changed in Boise. Let’s not fight each other.”

State, federal push

The plight of districts like Bonner and Boundary has been noticed at the state and federal levels.

State Superintendent Anne Fox again is pushing a half-cent sales tax increase for school construction that would replace some property tax money to pay off school bonds.

And for the first time, Congress and the Clinton administration have begun debating whether the federal government should take a role in school construction funding.

In the meantime, superintendents will try new strategies for passing bond levies - like the Kellogg School District did last week.

The Sid Rayfields of North Idaho will keep tinkering to avoid tragedies, and parents like Teresa Asbill will continue to volunteer in hopes their efforts will help.

“I choose to live here and be a positive part of this community,” Asbill said. “I pray my kids will do fine.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photos 2 graphics: 1. Summary of problems 2. Idaho’s crumbling schools

MEMO: SUMMARY OF PROBLEMS Idaho is one of a dozen states that do not earmark state funding for school construction. When local levies and bonds fail, many school buildings become hazardous.

Dec. 13, 1997, a school secretary reported the sound of popcorn popping in the Priest Lake Elementary gymnasium. It was the roof beams cracking under pressure. Dec. 30, 1997, the gymnasium roof at Sandpoint High School caved in while students were on winter break. Dec. 30, 1997, Valley View Elementary’s gymnasium came thundering down in Bonners Ferry, blowing out walls and sending bricks 20 feet out into the parking lot. To prevent future disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has offered $466,443 to build a new gymnasium at architecturally identical Mount Hall Elementary 16 miles to the north. Jan. 1, 1997, Sandpoint’s FarminStidwell Elementary School roof began to fold under the stress of snow and 80 men shoveling on top. April 29, 1997, the Idaho State Safety Inspector ruled Troy’s threestory high school in Latah County unsafe to occupy. The inspector suggested remedial action (price tag $1.5 million) or abandonment of the 1905 building. March, 1997, an electrical fire in the Butte County High School in Arco, Idaho, sparked a 10-page report from the Deputy State Fire Marshall citing a host of fire safety violations. The health department reported only one bathroom had hot water and a significant rodent infestation. Half of the high school was later demolished because of safety violations. The Midvale school, built in 1903, has an old septic system that pumps raw sewage directly into the Weiser River. In Bonner County, five school sites are too low, causing water to drain into buildings and bubble up through floors, leaving rot and mold. Of the district’s 52 buses, 19 are over 10 years old with more than 200,000 miles each. When Cottonwood School District’s Special Education Director suffered a heart attack in a top floor office of a multi-story old building, paramedics had to discontinue CPR because of difficulties maneuvering the flat stretcher around the corners of the narrow staircase. The teacher died, leaving school officials to wonder if better access could have saved their colleague. In Potlatch, large kindergarten classes periodically force pre-school and special needs classes to the rented basement of the nearby Presbyterian Church. Several of the school’s new buses are too high to fit into the old garage built in 1950. In 1995-96, the swollen Potlatch River swamped Kendrick’s vocational agricultural building under 6-8 inches of water. The Genesee School District has one three-story brick school building housing all students from pre-school through 12th grade. In the spring and early fall, many classrooms exceed 90 degrees in the afternoon. Wiring is inadequate to handle room air conditions, let alone computers in classrooms. Source: Andrea Vogt, The Spokesman-Review, and court affidavits in Idaho Schools for Equal Educational Opportunity vs. The State of Idaho.

Coming Monday: A state law that requires bond issues to win two-thirds support from the voters to pass makes it difficult for cash-strapped rural counties to build new schools.

SUMMARY OF PROBLEMS Idaho is one of a dozen states that do not earmark state funding for school construction. When local levies and bonds fail, many school buildings become hazardous.

Dec. 13, 1997, a school secretary reported the sound of popcorn popping in the Priest Lake Elementary gymnasium. It was the roof beams cracking under pressure. Dec. 30, 1997, the gymnasium roof at Sandpoint High School caved in while students were on winter break. Dec. 30, 1997, Valley View Elementary’s gymnasium came thundering down in Bonners Ferry, blowing out walls and sending bricks 20 feet out into the parking lot. To prevent future disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has offered $466,443 to build a new gymnasium at architecturally identical Mount Hall Elementary 16 miles to the north. Jan. 1, 1997, Sandpoint’s FarminStidwell Elementary School roof began to fold under the stress of snow and 80 men shoveling on top. April 29, 1997, the Idaho State Safety Inspector ruled Troy’s threestory high school in Latah County unsafe to occupy. The inspector suggested remedial action (price tag $1.5 million) or abandonment of the 1905 building. March, 1997, an electrical fire in the Butte County High School in Arco, Idaho, sparked a 10-page report from the Deputy State Fire Marshall citing a host of fire safety violations. The health department reported only one bathroom had hot water and a significant rodent infestation. Half of the high school was later demolished because of safety violations. The Midvale school, built in 1903, has an old septic system that pumps raw sewage directly into the Weiser River. In Bonner County, five school sites are too low, causing water to drain into buildings and bubble up through floors, leaving rot and mold. Of the district’s 52 buses, 19 are over 10 years old with more than 200,000 miles each. When Cottonwood School District’s Special Education Director suffered a heart attack in a top floor office of a multi-story old building, paramedics had to discontinue CPR because of difficulties maneuvering the flat stretcher around the corners of the narrow staircase. The teacher died, leaving school officials to wonder if better access could have saved their colleague. In Potlatch, large kindergarten classes periodically force pre-school and special needs classes to the rented basement of the nearby Presbyterian Church. Several of the school’s new buses are too high to fit into the old garage built in 1950. In 1995-96, the swollen Potlatch River swamped Kendrick’s vocational agricultural building under 6-8 inches of water. The Genesee School District has one three-story brick school building housing all students from pre-school through 12th grade. In the spring and early fall, many classrooms exceed 90 degrees in the afternoon. Wiring is inadequate to handle room air conditions, let alone computers in classrooms. Source: Andrea Vogt, The Spokesman-Review, and court affidavits in Idaho Schools for Equal Educational Opportunity vs. The State of Idaho.

Coming Monday: A state law that requires bond issues to win two-thirds support from the voters to pass makes it difficult for cash-strapped rural counties to build new schools.


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