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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

West Bonner considers school closures after levy fail

Update: West Bonner School Board votes to close junior high

PRIEST RIVER, Idaho – The West Bonner School Board met Wednesday night to weigh whether to close several of its five schools next year as it balances a budget shortfall from a failed levy. The board had not reached a decision by publication deadline.

District administration last week presented the board a long list of recommended budget cuts as well as various options for closing different combinations of the junior high and three elementary schools. The most drastic option was to combine the junior high with the high school, and close Priest Lake and Idaho Hill elementary schools.

The closures would involve cutting 13 certified teachers through attrition, as well as one administrator and additional classified staff.

Voters in the district rejected a $4.6 million levy last month, and a similar measure failed a year ago. The district scraped through this school year by using the last of its federal COVID-19 pandemic emergency funding.

The recommended budget cuts included leasing or selling the district office, and funding sports and extracurriculars through participation fees, booster fundraising or sponsorships.

Even with the cuts, the district will likely need to dip into its reserves to balance the budget.

“If we don’t do something different or significant, we are going to have major problems in 2026 keeping this district afloat,” finance director Dean Davis said.

The board heard an outpouring of public comment from parents Wednesday offering suggestions and other alternatives, including relying on community donations.

Special Education Director Kristina Kenny is leading a committee to identify alternative funding options. Kenny told the board the committee found three potential funding sources from local foundations, grants and by establishing an endowment fund to which the community can donate.

Last September, voters decisively recalled two board members who actively campaigned against the last levy.

Whitney Urmann, who moderates a Facebook group that supports the school district, said she had hoped the tide had turned after the recall, but it was hard to compete with a bombardment of misinformation against the levy.

“More than ever, we have to stick with our schools,” Urmann said.

While older students from the area take the bus to the junior and senior high schools, the 30-mile bus ride will be harder on younger children.

Urmann taught at Priest Lake on a one-year contract from COVID relief funds. Although she teaches at a school in Northern California, her parents still live in the area, and she remains active in advocating for the district and hopes to return. She is back in town for the summer.

Robert Bauer, a parent who volunteers as a crossing guard at Idaho Hill in Oldtown, said combining schools from three communities will be hard on the kids.

From conversations with others, Bauer believes the levy failed because of a backlash from those who were against the recall. He thinks they wanted to hurt the district out of spite.

He plans to continue volunteering.

“I’m going to help any way I can,” Bauer said.

Kylie Hoepfer, a parent of two at Priest River Elementary, said even though that school is not closing, she worries about the near doubling of its population with larger class sizes.

One of the main complaints of those who opposed the levy was low test scores, but Hoepfer questioned how larger classes and less funding would help that.

In 2006, the Legislature changed how it funds schools by cutting property taxes and giving more control to local voters through levies. As a result, about one-third of school funding depends on local levies. Some districts have perpetually struggled to pass them.

“Until Idaho funds schooling better, we are at a standstill,” Hoepfer said.

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.