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Dire budget forces drastic proposal in Boundary County

Naples Elementary parents are fighting to save their school

NAPLES, Idaho – Colorful art projects and papers came down from the walls of Naples Elementary School as the smell of cleaning spray marked the end of the school year. Principal Jim Nash walked through the flurry, stopping every few feet when students approached him for a hug.

“Kiddos first and foremost,” Nash said.

It’s unknown if the hugs will continue for students at Naples next year. Boundary County voters will decide Tuesday whether to close the more-than-a-century-old elementary school to save money after Idaho legislators dramatically slashed school spending this spring.

Usually a school closure is determined by a school board vote, but when Naples Elementary consolidated into the Boundary County School District in 1947, it was written into law that the school could only be closed through a countywide vote, Nash said.

Naples, with 123 students, was notified of the potential closure on May 10.

“Basically in less than a month we’ve been scrambling to save the school,” said Theresa Wardle, parent of a first-grader and a licensed social worker.

Naples parents are asking for a year to figure out a solution in place of closing the school, Wardle said. She researched options she feels weren’t explored by the board, such as turning Naples into a charter school or magnet school.

The tight timeline is due to state requirements to have teacher contracts negotiated by early June, said Valley View Elementary Principal Cindy Orr. Valley View, nine miles north in Bonners Ferry, is where students would be sent if Naples closes.

“None of us on the board wanted to do this,” Boundary County School Board Chairwoman Melanie Staples said. But closing Naples was the only solution the board could find that meant enough savings, year after year, she said. “This county does not want to be taxed again, and that would just provide a temporary fix” in any case, she said.

The school district declared a financial emergency in late March, following a decrease in state funding of 7.5 percent for 2011.

Boundary County schools already operate on a four-day week because of earlier cuts. Nash serves as the principal of two other elementary schools in addition to Naples as another money-saving measure. The district had reduced the budget for next year by $538,000 but still had a deficit.

The board did a closure-cost comparison between the elementary schools in the district and found Naples would bring the most savings, at $250,000 per year, primarily in transportation costs and maintenance.

While Naples parents ask for more time, parents from the district’s other elementary schools are worried that their kids’ schools would be on the chopping block if voters elect to keep Naples open. At a recent sporting event, fliers were handed out warning voters about potential closure of other schools if they didn’t vote to close Naples.

“It’s so hard to see the splitting in the community,” Nash said. “The community should be coming together because of the school. This is not about closing Naples in lieu of another school. This is about what we will do to keep rural schools.”

Valley View currently has 342 students. Orr, the principal there, said the facilities can handle the additional students and staff.

All six teachers from Naples would transfer to Valley View to teach in their certified area, said Don Bartling, the district’s superintendent for 34 years.

The one exception would be librarian and tech instructor Bethany Cavendar, who would lose her job if Naples closes. But Cavendar said that’s OK: “I’d rather it be me. My husband has a good job.”

Cavendar said it would be a loss to the community if Naples closes, however. The school recently used grant money to buy computers that are available to home-schooled children in the area, as is the library, to which the parent-teacher-student association just donated $1,300 in new books.

The school board said its decision to target Naples for closure is based on numbers. “Rural” schools receive more funding per student; to be considered rural, a school must be more than 10 miles from the superintendent’s office and more than 10 miles from a like school, in this case another elementary school. Naples does not qualify as “rural” by tenths of a mile, and therefore the district receives less funding for it, Bartling said.

Board member Lisa Dirks, who represents the Naples district on the board, said she, her children and her father all attended the elementary school.

“I love Naples dearly. It’s been emotional for me,” she said. But “it’s important to step back and look as a whole what has the least impact on student learning.”

Naples parents say the potential closure has them concerned about class sizes and transportation.

The board’s presentation shows that class size will not increase in the consolidation. But Wardle said kindergarten and first-grade teaching positions are funded through temporary federal funding, and if that goes away, class sizes could double. Bartling, however, said it’s unclear what would happen in that case because of tenure protections.

The board also plans to cut transportation costs by running one bus route from Naples to Bonners Ferry. How this new route would change students’ time on the bus each day is disputed. But parents say they are concerned that elementary school children would be on the same bus with high schoolers each way.