The Bonner County School District is taking a King Solomon approach to its problems. It wants to split itself in half.
The school board approved a plan Tuesday to divide this huge district into an east and west side. The move must be approved by voters and would make Sandpoint and Priest River, about 25 miles to the west, two separate districts. Each area would have its own trustees, superintendent, and budget
The goal is to give residents more control over how their schools are run and stop tension between communities. Residents in Priest River often feel shortchanged, saying trustees lavish more attention and money on schools in Sandpoint.
“I’m in favor of it for one reason. I think it will improve service to kids,” said trustee Jerry Owens. “This will make it much easier for residents to get their arms around the district and feel some local ownership and control.”
The district has 16 schools, with some spread more than 100 miles apart. “Functionally, the district is operating as two or three district’s now,” said Mike Boeck, a member of the committee which recommended the district divide.
Bonds and levies have been a hard sell here. Residents in Sandpoint tend to be reluctant to pay higher taxes to build a new school in Priest River and vice versa. Patrons and school officials even bicker over which school buildings should be repaired first and where money should go for sports and educational programs.
“For the sake of kids’ education, we can’t afford not to divide,” said committee member Eric Eldenburg.
Ultimately, creating two districts could make the school system more financially sound and encourage residents to pass levies.
“The energies and assets of the community can be better focused on students,” Boeck said.
The committee studied dividing the district for several months. It found it could split along current attendance zones and not disrupt students or teachers. Both districts would retain state funding and not lose revenue or employees. The committee was unanimous in recommending a split.
The process could take a year and cost about $25,000. The district will now draw plans and have a survey done to create boundaries for the new districts.
Assets will have to be divvied up as will tax dollars. The State Department of Education has already offered to help and must approve the plan. Residents will get to comment on the proposal at several public hearings, then vote on the idea.
The proposal needs a simple majority of votes to pass. But the plan also has to pass by 50 percent in the smaller district that is being created. Owens said that is a safeguard to keep district’s from booting less desirable and poorer areas from the system.
District officials want a public vote held by next November. Owens hopes it will be sooner, so the new districts could be set up before school starts in September.