August 14, 2009 in Idaho

Lakeside Elementary considers asking for emergency aid

By The Spokesman-Review
Kathy Plonka photo

Stacey Sonder, director of maintenance for Plummer-Worley School District, talked about the dangerous conditions of Lakeside Elementary in Worley on Tuesday while standing in the attic of the building surrounded by cracked support beams. A list of dangers caused the district to close the school.
(Full-size photo)

Two winters of heavy snowfall have made a bad situation worse at Lakeside Elementary School in Worley.

Five thick beams supporting the 70-year-old building’s roof have nearly full-length cracks. Dry rot has caused the floor to separate from walls throughout the building. Cracks in the corners of many hallways show where walls are deteriorating.

The Idaho Division of Building Safety determined July 15 that the gymnasium roof will likely collapse if hit with a foot of snow. Following the state’s finding of “serious and imminent” danger, the district closed the school and made plans to house its 250 youngest students in the middle school and in portable classrooms this fall. Some of the middle school students will move to the high school.

The district has tried for years to fix the structural deficiencies of the 1937 building. But a new funding option has surfaced, said Superintendent Judi Sharrett.

Three years ago, the state Legislature created a fund to which districts can apply for emergency money when schools pose a serious danger. The legislation placed $25 million in that fund and created a three-person panel to administer it. Those people are: the administrator of the Division of Building Safety, the administrator of the Division of Public Works and the executive director of the State Board of Education.

The Plummer-Worley School District would be the first in Idaho to apply for some of the money, but it doesn’t come without strings. If the district applies, it must run one more bond election. If it passes, the problem is solved. If the bond fails, the state can furnish emergency funds and levy a tax on the district for repayment.

“It’s not a freebie at all,” said Sharrett, who took over in May. She said she expects the school board to decide within the next couple of weeks whether to apply to the fund.

District voters rejected bonds for a new school in 2006, in 2008 and in May. Support has grown but has not reached the two-thirds supermajority necessary to pass a school bond.

The state considers several factors in determining how much money the district would need to repay, said Jason Hancock, deputy chief of staff for the State Department of Education.

First, the state looks at how much it would contribute to the district through “bond levy equalization,” a subsidy that’s based in part on property values, the unemployment rate and per-capita income. Then it uses a formula to determine what sort of levy rate the district can afford to pay back, he said. And if the total amount is not paid off in 20 years, the rest is forgiven, he said.

Hancock said the Department of Education has been notified that the district intends to apply.

“This is what this legislation was brought to do,” he said. “This is the kind of situation it was developed to take care of … so that no child in Idaho would have to go to school in an unsafe building.”

Sharrett said initial engineering analyses show that replacing the roof would cost $2.6 million. Completely renovating the school would cost between $6.5 million and $7.2 million, and building a new school would cost at least $8 million, she said.

“If that roof gets 12 inches of snow, the hazard condition becomes imminent and no one can enter that building,” said Bill Hatch, public information officer for the Division of Building Safety. “The panel is very interested in receiving that application and doing what it can to get the district whatever is the appropriate number of dollars to help with this situation.”

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe, whose members make up about two-thirds of the district’s students, has tried to support the district, said Marc Stewart, the tribe’s spokesman. Since 1993, the tribe has donated more than $3 million from gambling revenues to the district to use however it sees fit, he said. Wednesday, the tribe announced it will donate backpacks filled with school supplies to 700 students.

The tribe also runs its own school in DeSmet for students in kindergarten through grade eight. Members of the tribe with children in the district can decide where they send their children, Stewart said.

There’s only so much the tribe can do for the public school district, he said.

“It’s a public school,” he said. “The tribe has no control over the board or the direction the school is going in. It’s run by a school board of elected people.”

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