Friday, December 30, 2011

In schools, new faces and new projects

Trustees argued about communications, daycare and security


By TERRY SMITH
Express Staff Writer

Superintendent Lonnie Barber continued to lead the Blaine County School District in 2011 in its quests to provide 21st-century skills to the students and improved communications with the public. Photo by Mountain Express

Improving communications with the public was bandied about a lot this year in the Blaine County School District, with the topic itself becoming a controversial issue when it came to establishing a new communications director position.

Heather Crocker, former executive director of the Blaine County Education Foundation, eventually got the job and assumed the post in April. But it took four months of school board wrangling before a final vote was taken. And even then, it was a near thing, ending in a trustee vote of 3-2 in favor, with Trustees Paul Bates and Kathryn Graves casting the dissenting votes.

Arguments against centered on whether the funding to hire Crocker could be better used elsewhere, allegations that the communications director would only serve as a shield for Superintendent Lonnie Barber and whether the job could be better handled by a trustee-led committee.

Since then, Crocker has developed new communications tools and her own communications plan, which was unanimously approved by the board earlier this month without criticism or controversy, indicative that past concerns with establishing the communications director position have now evaporated.

Daycare center

Some School District observers were somewhat surprised by the controversy that erupted in May when district officials floated the idea of establishing a daycare center to serve student mothers at Wood River and Silver Creek high schools.

Barber argued that having a convenient daycare would help young mothers stay in school and complete their high school education. Opposition views were that the convenience of having an on-campus daycare center would encourage teenage pregnancy, that the proposal needed further study, that a school daycare would take business away from private daycare facilities and that the district proposal didn't go far enough in tackling the social or psychological aspects of the issue.

That, too, was a close vote, with the proposal passing by 3-2 in June. Bates and Graves again voted no.

Six months later, the daycare facility is up and running at the district-owned Community Campus, adjacent to both Wood River and Silver Creek high schools. The daycare center had an initial enrollment of six students and their children.

New faces

Two new school board members were impaneled in July, replacing the final members of an older regime that was led by then-board Chair Julie Dahlgren and then-Vice Chair Daniel Parke, neither of whom chose to run for re-election.

Don Nurge, current board vice chair, ran unopposed to replace Dahlgren in Zone 5, which encompasses the Sun Valley and east Ketchum areas. Shawn Bennion defeated Hallie Kelly Star to take Parke's seat in Zone 1, which encompasses the south Bellevue and Carey areas.

Trustee Steve Guthrie, who was elected to the board in 2009, is now board chair.

The previous board's final public meeting in June was not without its fireworks, as Parke and Bates got into a row following an impassioned presentation from district Security Director Scott Manning about the need for security upgrades at the entrances of Wood River High School and Wood River Middle School.

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Parke took exception to Bates' referring to Manning's presentation as "paranoid ranting," and criticized his fellow board member for what he characterized as representing a special interest group and "not putting the children first."

The proposal discussed by Manning was ultimately approved by the board as part of a larger funding package that sailed through the October regular school board meeting without dissent.

Levy spending

Spending of future revenues from a 10-year, $59.8 million plant facilities levy, approved by Blaine County voters in 2009, continued at a brisk pace in 2011.

By year's end, the district had spent or committed to spending $27 million of the levy dollars.

The bulk of the money has gone to geothermal resource development and building retrofits through a contract with Seattle-based McKinstry engineering firm. By year's end, that work was about 95 percent finished.

Other levy dollars are being spent on a remodel of the auditorium at the Community Campus, new fire suppression systems at various district schools, a new maintenance and storage facility being built on Aviation Drive in Hailey, a new multipurpose room at Bellevue Elementary School and various technology and security purchases and upgrades.

Labor negotiations

For the first time ever, contract negotiations between the district and the Blaine County teachers union were brought out of the closet and discussed in the open because of a new state law that required that negotiations be held in public.

Nonetheless, that didn't stop the negotiators from agreeing to a 2 percent across-the-board teacher pay raise.

The district decided that what was good for teachers was good for everybody, and so extended the 2 percent pay increase to all district employees, including five administrators who represented the district in negotiations with the union.

The situation caused significant public criticism of the district and the union.

Stabilization levy

The district's permanent stabilization levy, the lifeblood of its operating budget, came under fire in 2011 for the second year in a row from state legislators who are opposed to the property tax assessment.

Though efforts to eliminate the levy, which raises $29.5 million per year, failed in 2011, a renewed attack is expected in 2012.

The Blaine County School District is only one of four school districts in Idaho currently allowed by law to collect property taxes through a permanent levy.

If the provision is eliminated, the district would have to take the measure to the public for renewal every two years.

Terry Smith: tsmith@mtexpress.com




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