I was chatting with a woman I know the other day whom I consider quite intelligent and knowledgeable about community events, when she asked me why the school district was going to build a new elementary school.
It brought me up short because almost everything about that question was fundamentally wrong. But if she was confused, I'm sure others out there are confused as well.
So, while we've covered this ground in the past, occasionally it's a good idea to bring everybody back up to speed.
There's one public school district in Mountain Home, School District 193, the Mountain Home School District.
The district is run by an independently elected board of trustees. I say that because we had one of our website commentators say they were going to city hall to complain about a school district policy (which they had completely misconstrued in the first place). Maybe they had a right to complain. After all, if they thought the city council ran the school district then they probably didn't pass their high school government class, so the education system around here really was lacking when they attended.
Anyway, the district operates three elementary schools in town and one on base. In addition, it runs a middle school, a junior high and two high schools in town.
Two, you say? That's right. Besides Mountain Home High School, it has also operated, for a little over a year now, Bennett Mountain Alternative High School.
Using the old Hacker annex, Bennett Mountain is the district's alternative school for "at risk" students.
These are kids who, for one reason or another, have had difficulty fitting into the mainstream educational system at MHHS.
But rather than just ignoring these kids and letting them fall through the cracks, the district makes a special effort to find ways to get them a degree and make them productive members of society. Starting up that daycare for the kids at Bennett -- which won't cost a dime of district money (see last week's story) -- is one way they help these kids get their lives back on track. All of which helps break a cycle of poverty and dependency and saves society a ton of money in the long run.
Go over and talk to some of those kids at Bennett Mountain. It's amazing how many of them didn't think they'd even graduate from high school and now are making serious plans to go on to college.
Bennett is clearly a success story for the district.
The district has had some experience with alternative schools in the past. That's how McKenna Charter High School got started. It was the district's original alternative school and still maintains a lot of those roots in reaching out to at-risk students.
Many years ago McKenna decided to go the charter school route. But rather than getting their charter through the Mountain Home School District, they're one of a tiny handful of charter schools whose charters are directly from the state. Most charter schools are through a school district, but since all charter schools have their own boards of trustees to make decisions and policy, for all practical purposes, they're independent schools.
Most charter schools aren't like McKenna in other ways, as well. They're not aimed at high-risk students -- those who have a high likelihood of dropping out. In fact, most charter schools tend to skim the "cream of the crop" of the students from the district to which they're attached.
They tend to operate a lot like a private school, picking and choosing who will attend, unlike public schools, which pretty much have to take whoever shows up. They're functionally private schools financed by tax dollars taken from the public school systems. It was how the legislature, which doesn't really like public education in the first place, got around the controversial "voucher" systems.
Most charter schools don't represent the general demographics of the districts that charter them. There are many fewer poor students in most charter schools than there are in the mainstream districts, minorities tend to be underrepresented, it would be extremely rare to find a charter school with a program to teach English to students who don't speak it at all, and I'm not aware of any charter school in the state with special rooms and programs set aside for the "severe and profound" special education students that public school districts must provide.
No, charter schools get some nice breaks. Furthermore, all of them have low student-to-teacher ratios, which anybody who's followed this column knows I think is the single most important factor in determining overall student success in school. When a teacher has the time to work with a student, the student tends to do better.
Yet, due to funding cuts by the legislature, public schools have seen student-to-teacher ratios rise to the point that too many teachers are conducting crowd control, not teaching.
Although McKenna still focuses on at-risk students, and sets some pretty stringent criteria for the ones they accept, they also enjoy much lower student-to-teacher ratios, which is one factor in their success (they also managed to grab some of the best teachers in the area to come work for them). But McKenna also will take kids these days who aren't "at risk," if they pass the entrance approval criteria. As long as it doesn't push their student-to-teacher ratios up too high, something public schools have little control over.
McKenna has expanded to include a massive on-line high school curriculum (and gets paid by the state for those online students, despite the fact the legislature specifically tried to prevent paying public schools for their students that were taking on-line classes). McKenna has one of the few on-line high schools in the state, which has a complicated series of ties to its brick and mortar school. Some on-line students are "at risk" and some are just on-line students, choosing an alternative to public education to get their degree.
McKenna's funding is also different in some ways, although they still get state money for every student "in class." But, for example, if they want to build a building, they just go get a loan for it and build it. Regular public schools can't do that. They have to get "supermajority" (2/3rds) voter approval for a bond.
McKenna officials believe this area can support a charter elementary school. That's why they outbid the city for some land up on E. 8th North Street and have a proposal before the city planning and zoning commission right now.
While it would relieve some overcrowding in the public school system, District 193 gets most of its money from the state based on how many students it has in class. Fewer students (drawn away to the charter elementary), means less money to pay teachers in the public schools. It's a trade-off, overall, but the public schools tend to lose the most.
So, when you hear about a new elementary school being built, it's not a project of the Mountain Home School District. It's a project of the independent McKenna schools system. McKenna can't levy a property tax, so it's not going to raise your taxes (at least directly) to build a new school.
Essentially, if they can get city approval for the rezone and conditional use permit, and find a bank to back them, they'll build it.
Getting anything done in the public schools system is a lot harder -- by law.
Back around 2008, then-Gov. Jim Risch pushed through the legislature a plan that took away local school districts' operation and maintenance levies -- a key source of funding used to run the districts. In exchange, the state (read Big Brother/legislature) said it would make up the difference directly to the school districts.
It never really did, and since most of the state money that got passed along to the local districts (from higher income and sales taxes) came with a lot of strings attached, there was a significant reduction in local control over how that money should be spent. And with the state dependent upon more volatile income and sales taxes, when the economy melted down, so did funding for public education.
The public school districts did wind up with an option to go to the voters and get short-term (two-year-max) supplemental levies passed, however. As the legislature continued to slash funding, 95 percent of all the school districts in the state have been forced to go to the voters to get those supplemental levies.
The alternative would be draconian cuts in programs neither the districts nor their patrons wanted to see.
Roughly four out of every five dollars spent by a public school district is in the form of wages for teachers and other staff. To make ends meet, even with the supplemental levies, teacher salaries have been cut and teachers have been laid off (or at least, their positions were not filled if they retired or left the district). In this district, they've also cut administrators well below the level recommended by the state.
Despite what some of our idiot "facts"-out-of-thin-air website commentators think, this district -- its administrators and teachers -- and this school board, genuinely care about the kids. They do a pretty good job, too, within the limited resources the state lets them have. They're not out there wasting money hand over fist.
Which is why they really will need to renew the supplemental levy this March.
It won't increase your taxes because you're already paying the amount they're asking voters to renew. But without it, they're looking at cuts they really don't want to make.
Kids need more than just "readin', 'ritin' and 'rithmetic." They need enrichment classes to inspire them to do more with their life than just the minimum necessary.
This has nothing to do with McKenna's completely separate proposed charter elementary school.
This is about keeping what the local public school district has now, and not losing any more.
-- Kelly Everitt