A boost for public education

Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Jessica Cameron, a computer lab instructor at East Elementary School, helps James Sabol as he creates a slideshow presentation on panthers during a class on Monday. The current dialog between the school district and Mountain Home Air Force Base seeks to improve the level of eduction offered to students attending public school in the local area.

An initial dialog between senior leaders at Mountain Home Air Force Base and the Mountain Home School District is seeking to provide a higher standard of education for local area students.

Last month, representatives from the base, school district and school board met in what each described as a positive conversation they expect will involve a long-term process to improve local schools.

The meeting follows an initial report drafted in late 2014 by base officials that collected data posted by the U.S. Department of Education. That report compared the local school district with the Boise Independent School District, the McCall-Donnelly School District and the Fairfax County public school district in Virginia.

"The whole goal was to show where the Mountain Home School District compares to other school districts," said Col. David Iverson, commander of the 366th Fighter Wing at the local Air Force base.

District officials admit that the methodology used in the draft report, a copy of which was obtained by the Mountain Home News, didn't accurately capture the demographics between all four districts.

"What that report highlighted is the 'haves' and 'have-nots,' " said school district assistant superintendent James Gilbert. "The wealthier a district is, the more things you're able to offer."

The three other districts listed in that report didn't fit the demographic of rural Idaho, Gilbert added. It essentially compared "apples to oranges" due to the distinct differences associated with these districts.

"I don't know if we have anything in common with these places," said school board president Jim Alexander.

The Fairfax school district alone has 177,000 students, which is twice the total number of students enrolled in all of the public schools in this state, Alexander said. In addition, the state of Virginia provides $12,000 to support each of its students.

In comparison, Idaho provides just $4,800 per pupil with a total per-pupil budget of $7,500 in Mountain Home, which includes federal impact aid money.

"The reality is that rich is always better than poor," Alexander said. "What they do in Virginia... is far more lucrative for people to live there than it is here."

The Fairfax community is home to Langley Air Force Base, which is home to many of the individuals that are stationed at Mountain Home at some point in their career.

There are other distinct differences between Mountain Home and the other districts outlined in that report, Gilbert added. For example, Boise was originally established as a charter school district. By law, it's able to pass levies to pay for new buildings and equipment without having to receive approval from its voters.

"It allows them, honestly, the ability to provide programs that they want without having to go to the taxpayers," Gilbert said. "It gives them an advantage that nobody else (in the state) has."

Iverson emphasized that public education and the quality of local schools is one thing military families look at when they receive orders to Mountain Home. Some of these families are noting that the community here has a fairly average ranking when compared to other school districts in the region, the colonel said.

It's one of the reasons why a number of them choose to live in Boise and commute each day to the base.

Meanwhile, some military families with high school students were growing frustrated with the local district over getting needs met for their children, the colonel added.

"As we started to hear these stories from parents... we decided to do more of a fact-based look at the actual quality of the Mountain Home School District and then compare that to other schools."

The colonel emphasized that this initial report was aimed at making initial comparisons between the districts to see what could apply here.

"Are the comparisons perfect? No, they are absolutely not perfect," Iverson said.

Ultimately, the report did serve a purpose -- to start a conversation between the base and school district, the colonel added.

"We heard a lot of chatter behind the scenes by parents as well as local citizens," Iverson said. "But nobody was really talking... there was not a public discourse going on about this."

Last month's meeting helped opened the door to an effort the colonel hopes will continue years or even decades down the road.

"What I would like to do is look at the facts about the Mountain Home School District, where it compares in terms of SAT scores, where it compares to graduation rates (and) where it compares to its gifted and talented and advanced placement for colleges," he said.

When he read the initial report that compared Mountain Home to the other districts, he was surprised at the district's overall graduation rate and the scores on college placement tests by students here, both of which he considered lower than expected.

At the same time, he noted the student-to-teacher ratio in the district was higher when compared to other districts in that report. That ratio is a key indicator of a district's ability to property teach its students with a lower ratio promoting better learning, according to the colonel.

The colonel understands the challenges the district here faces in terms of its funding, much of which comes from the state. In recent years, lawmakers at the state capitol have continued to cut funding to its districts, with local taxpayers having to approve levies just to keep the doors open, he said.

At the same time, Iverson said the district has struggled financially with regards to the physical condition of its buildings with only a small amount of money it can spend each year to maintain those facilities.

Even if Mountain Home were compared to rural districts like Blackfoot in that initial report, the district here can always find ways to be better, Iverson said.

"I would still say that, no matter where we are, we can do better," the colonel added. "If we have a good school district, we can have a great school district. And if someone says we have a great school district, I would say fine, then let's have a fantastic school district."

No matter where the district stands from an academic perspective, people here should never stop striving to achieve a higher level -- to give something better to their children and to give something better to this city and its citizens.

Ultimately, a quality education yields a better community, he said.

"Education will build the viability of the town and the economic diversity of the town and well being of the town," Iverson added. "Whether you are two years old or 70 years old, the education of the citizens of Mountain Home is going to play an impact on the economic well being of the town.

"We want the best for our town. We want the best for our local community. So what is it that we can start to do," Iverson added.

Since that initial report, base officials have revised that document to address concerns previously aired by the school district, according to Gilbert.

"It's served a purpose and definitely started a dialog in a positive way," he said.

The report actually fostered renewed conversation between the base, the school district and the local community, which Gilbert admits hasn't happened in a long time. It's a way for the district to learn what the military community wants from the school district as well as what the Mountain Home community, as a whole, wants as well.

"This is a community issue," Iverson said. "This isn't just a Mountain Home issue or a school district issue."

The base's leadership wants to be the catalyst to make connections and connect people together, the colonel said. This type of networking happened recently when base leaders invited representatives from Boise State University to met face to face with school district and city leaders here. Iverson also expects to meet with university presidents and the deans of three other colleges and universities.

"The goal is to begin a conversation and build links between the experts here in Mountain Home and the experts in other places in Idaho or out of state so they can begin to work together to find solutions," the colonel said.

The first challenge is to identify the needs and shortfalls within the school district while ensuring everyone involved in the process concurs with those assessments, he added. Among those issues involves the condition of buildings in this district.

"We know there is a physical plant... facilities or infrastructure challenge," Iverson said. "So what we're looking at is where can other people who have the expertise come in and provide assistance and support so the Mountain Home School District can find a way forward."

The colonel added that this effort is being led not by military leaders but by parents whose children are enrolled in Mountain Home's schools. Iverson himself has his three children in three schools here.

Ultimately, the problems the district currently faces extend outside of Mountain Home, according to Alexander. They lead to state lawmakers in Boise, who approve the district's funding each year.

"Idaho is the single most difficult state in the union to get dollars for education," the school board president said. "Not only do you need a 2/3 majority to pass a bond, but you have no assistance from the state."

And when districts bring up these funding issues to the legislature, it tends to fall on a "deaf ear," he added. Instead, school districts like Mountain Home have relied on the support of local voters to approve levies "just to keep the train on the tracks."

"The legislature is in full control of the dollars that go into education," Alexander added. "To change that (mindset) requires a paradigm shift in philosophy, and we're on board with that."

Gilbert remains optimistic that this ongoing dialog will yield positive results, although it could take time for this community to see any tangible results.

"This shows me that the Air Force is very committed to Mountain Home and they're trying to help in areas where traditionally they haven't been involved," Gilbert said.

The base's leadership is simply trying to help -- not just the district but the community as well, the district superintendent added.

Unlike some communities in this state, Mountain Home does have one "ace in the hole," Alexander added. The base's leadership has more political pull with the state's leadership than any school district might.

"They need to have a sit down with the governor and the legislators and tell them that due to their practices and their philosophy for funding education, that they are endangering the mission of the base," Alexander said.

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