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Post Falls Faces A Growing Need School District Asks Voters To Pay Price Of Progress

First of three parts

There’s little debate over whether Post Falls needs a new school.

The school district says facilities are overcrowded and it’s about time the community builds a new school.

The Kootenai County Property Owners Association - a watchdog organization that has opposed school bond issues in the past - concedes the same points.

The two sides differ in specifics.

The property owners say the $21 million cost of a new high school and athletic complex is too high, especially when a new junior high could serve the growing district’s needs.

District representatives say the price is justified and that a new high school would serve students and taxpayers best in the long run.

With a new high school, the district would need no other new schools until 2005, district officials have estimated.

“Of course we need it,” said Margie McCoy, co-chairwoman of the Post Falls Education Association and a seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher.

Students at the middle school have been attending classes in two shifts since September. While crowded conditions there have been especially bad, the whole district needs the extra room a new high school would provide, McCoy said.

“In this room, I’m pretty well full and I’m still supposed to have labs,” she said. “As teachers, we would definitely welcome it (a new high school). It would make it easier to teach without those physical problems.”

But “there’s never been a $21 million high school built in North Idaho,” said Don Morgan, a member of the property owners association.

The last four bond issues to build a high school in Post Falls have failed.

In the two bond elections in 1996, they came just short of the 66-2/3 percent majority they needed to pass. The current bond issue would raise $17.97 million for the high school. A second option, which can’t pass without the first passing, would raise an additional $2.89 million to build an athletic complex and fix the heating system at the existing high school.

For a $100,000 house, passing both options would add about $60 annually in property taxes with a homeowner’s exemption, explained Sid Armstrong, business manager for the school district. Passing only the first option would add $54 annually.

“It’s one of the best deals you can get for $5 a month,” said Kristi Bell, a parent.

Members of the property owners association say building a junior high school would be much cheaper.

Dee Lawless, president of the taxpayer group, and three other community members on the school facilities committee recommended against building a new high school in a minority report to the school board in 1994. They suggested a new building in the high school’s parking lot to house labs and vocational classes.

In December, the property owners offered to support a school bond if it were less than $14 million and if the school district ended double-shifting at the middle school immediately. They recommended building a new junior high school for $8 million - about the cost of the combination junior and senior high school the nearby Lakeland School District is building. A junior high, especially coupled with more year-round schooling, would solve the district’s overcrowding problems, they say.

The Lakeland school - called Timberlake - will be able to hold 725 to 750 students. The proposed high school in Post Falls could hold 1,400 students.

Timberlake is being built from wood and concrete blocks, a construction method the property owners say works well and lowers the overall cost.

But Armstrong said using a block method of construction will save the district money in the long run. Maintenance on wooden structures is more expensive when the building needs to last 70 or 80 years, Superintendent Dick Harris said.

A new high school would create room throughout the district, unlike a new junior high school, Harris said.

The current high school would be used for a middle or junior high school and the current middle school would be used for other classes.

Further, “we can improve programs by building a high school,” Harris said, because the current high school has insufficient room or facilities for modern vocational or technology classes.

“That facility was not designed around a high school and the kinds of programs that are in today’s world,” he said.

Taxpayers will have a tough time with the 20-year school bond, critics say.

“Post Falls is not a city where people live in expensive houses,” Morgan said. “When you soak up $21 million out of the tax base, it doesn’t leave much room (for other necessary tax increases).”

In December, the Property Owners Association recommended spending as much as $6 million to upgrade school facilities for year-round schooling, which would ease overcrowding. They say double-shifting at the middle school was not necessary because the school district’s enrollment increased by only 41 students from the previous school year.

District administrators, however, say year-round schooling works best when introduced slowly and on a voluntary basis. And because school enrollment has climbed steadily, double-shifting was necessary, they say.

“It isn’t just this year’s growth; it’s the accumulation of growth,” Harris said. “We have almost 900 students in a building designed for 550.”

The decision to double-shift at the middle school was made by a majority of people, said Gail Worden, a parent and supporter of the school bond.

“On the positive, it has alleviated overcrowding. You can actually walk through the halls without getting bumped into,” she said.

“But we’re suffering on the home front,” she added.

The property owners also question why the proposed high school will cost nearly $6 million more than the $15.1 million the Coeur d’Alene school district spent building Lake City High School in 1994.

If Coeur d’Alene had to build the same high school now, it would cost closer to $20 million, said Steve Briggs, Coeur d’Alene school business director.

“It wouldn’t be fair to assume that we could build that same school now for the same price,” he said.

Morgan doubts inflation would have increased that much, though.

“Inflation on construction in North Idaho has stayed flat for almost three or four years,” he said. “They haven’t made the case that what we’re getting is worth it.”

Armstrong said the architecture firm the school district selected estimated the cost of the high school construction.

“We are pretty comfortable with those numbers,” he said.

The firm, Architects West, was selected in 1994 by a committee of seven school district patrons.

Another concern the property owners brought up was situating a new high school with teenage drivers next to Prairie View Elementary School. That could be dangerous, they said.

But the new high school would be large enough to keep students on campus for lunch, unlike the existing high school, and students would be coming and going at different times than the elementary school, district officials have said.

Supporters of the bond say Tuesday’s vote is the community’s chance to support children.

“The bottom line is: Are we going to take care of our kids or not?” Bell said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Graphics: 1. School enrollment and bond issues 2. Post Falls levy