In the Aftermath of Failed Bonds, Two Schools in a Bind

By Beacon Staff

BIGFORK – In recent months, voters in the Bigfork and Somers-Lakeside school districts denied construction bonds put forth as an answer to buildings that are full and outdated. The verdict was obvious, but now two small schools are struggling to find solutions to problems that haven’t gone away.

At Lakeside Elementary School, storage closets have been converted to teacher offices and classes are sometimes taught two-at-a-time or in a hallway to make room for a growing student population. Somers Middle School, built in the early 1950’s, is so old and out-of-code engineers won’t even touch the building for small remodels like installing new hall windows. In the school’s non-regulation gym, carpet covers asbestos.

Math classes at Bigfork High School are taught in 12-year-old portable buildings and students – too numerous to fit in the school’s common areas – overflow into the gym and hallways at lunchtime.

Administrators say these are just a few of the schools’ needs that beg to be addressed; and short of bonds, they say other options aren’t feasible or have already been exhausted.

“Sometimes I’m not sure the public realizes the time and research we put into this,” Somers-Lakeside Superintendent Terri Wing said of the bond proposal. “It’s not something we just come up with randomly. We’ve toured other schools, spoken with engineers and consultants. This is a year of effort and that was the best solution.”

Bigfork’s school board, bolstered by public support after the failed high school bond and the narrow margin of its defeat, will try again. They recently voted to send the issue unchanged back to voters in a March 4 election.

“If they didn’t think this was the best option, the best possible solution, I don’t think they would’ve brought it back to the public,” Bigfork School district superintendent Russ Kinzer said.

In coming months, Somers-Lakeside school district will likely consider doing the same. Wing said the board and administrators are taking a step back from the proposal and will send out public surveys this month asking why they denied the bond.

Both districts’ bonds failed by narrow margins.

In October Bigfork voters approved the school district’s $5.5 million elementary bond but denied an $11.1 million bond for the high school. The high school bond was defeated by a margin of 84 votes. Had both bonds passed, they would have been used for a total-campus renovation, including several additions for classroom, library, office and cafeteria space.

Somers-Lakeside voters denied the school district’s $7.125-million bond in November – 969 against to 878 in favor. Had the issue passed, the bonds would have been used to construct a new building on the middle school campus. Sixth- through eighth-graders would have moved into the new building, and students in grades four and five would have moved from Lakeside Elementary to the existing middle school building.

In the last decade, enrollment in the Somers-Lakeside School District has increased by 15 percent. Typically the district has three classes per grade, but this fall, Lakeside Elementary has four kindergarten classes, five first grades and four third grades. The Lakeside Elementary building is only 10 years old, and was built with future growth in mind, but it is already beyond capacity. Somers Middle School was never built to handle current class sizes. “They couldn’t have even imagined classes of 20 to 30 students when this was built,” Wing said. “This was supposed to always be a little rural school.”

Wing and Kinzer said it’s often difficult to determine why people oppose school bonds beyond the obvious complaint of increased taxes. “I have some people tell me they just can’t afford anymore taxes, that they’re barely making it as it is. And to me, that’s a very valid reason. I respect that,” Kinzer said.

Kinzer said voters wary of tax increases are made even harder to persuade by the area’s school district system, where many voters are members of multiple districts making them responsible for multiple bonds. The same double-jeopardy applies in the Somers-Lakeside district, where many voters may already be paying bond increases for the new Glacier High School in Kalispell.

Wing said she felt some opposition comes from a resentment of the recent growth. “I think in general people are feeling an awful lot of change happening very quickly,” she said. “They’re not excited about the thought of another major subdivision coming into the area. They see our growth of students as a result of that, and it’s a hard sell to get them to support this when they don’t want more people in the first place.”

Administrators said it can also be hard for voters to see the benefits of these improvements if they don’t have children attending one of these schools or don’t see the needs first-hand.

Both school districts held informational sessions and tours before the first bond votes; neither received exceptional attendance, but response from those who did come was almost unanimously supportive. “I had people stop me half way through a tour, saying they’d seen enough, they were convinced we needed it,” Kinzer said. He said the school board and a community group will aim to clarify and spread the information to more people the second time around.

Effects of the denied bonds are hard to gauge. After more than a year each of research and preparation, administrators and teachers approach the topic with subdued frustration and guarded optimism for the future bond.

“I have a great staff. So far teachers have been very upbeat and kept their chins up despite having to make less than ideal changes to accommodate needs,” John Thies, Lakeside Elementary School principal, said. “But, if people don’t feel support from the community that can get to be hard on morale.”