The Legacy Of School Bonds In Boise

Mar 2, 2017

Whittier Elementary Students, Boise, February 2017.
Credit Tom Michael / Boise State Public Radio

The Boise School District has been building its case for voters to approve its $172 million bond on March 14. This isn’t the first time the district has had to sell the idea of a bond. There was a bond passed in 1996 and in 2006, and a levy in 2012.

More than a decade ago, voters approved a $94 million bond. Nancy Gregory was on the Boise School Board at that time.

"We finished all the projects early. We built several junior highs, did some historic remodels, new elementary schools at several sites," Gregory says. "You can drive around the Boise School District and see what that bond built."

But at the end of the day, what do bricks-and-mortar have to do with reading-writing-and-arithmetic? Gregory says the new buildings have led to results in the classroom.

"I think that it has made a significant difference when you invest in the workplace environment for students and teachers," says Gregory. "Student achievement is on an increase in the district. I mean that’s our goal. So the facilities represent where they spend six to eight hours of their day, and it does have an impact."

Gregory is now the Chair of the School Board, and this year’s list is even more ambitious. And a bond, she says, is the only way to do it.

"This cannot be accomplished with bake sales. This is the only funding stream that schools can use to build buildings. We’re not getting money from the feds or money from the state."

With this year’s bond, the Vice Chair of the Board, Maria Greeley, says every school in the district would receive facility money.

"There will be 22 major capital improvements. Some of them remodels, some new builds."

If she could pluck a citizen out of the voting booth and place them anywhere in in the district, where would it be?

"I would ask people to go see is Whittier Elementary," Greeley says. "It is a fantastic program where we got dual language, but it is so over capacity that I want to say half of the students are in portable buildings right now."

"This cannot be accomplished with bake sales. This is the only funding stream that schools can use to build buildings." -Nancy Gregory

At Whittier Elementary, Maria Castillo is leading a Spanish-language immersion class. These are first graders. One day they take their math or science instruction all in Spanish. And the next day, whatever the subject they’re learning, it’s all in English.

Fernanda Brendefur,  the principal at Whittier, explains "there’s so much research on the benefits of dual language.  Anytime you do something in two languages, it just, your brain develops in ways that monolingual brains don’t."

Timothy Goode is one of those first-grade students. Standing outside at the afternoon pickup, he sums up his day in a word: "English."

His father Simon is impressed. "It’s just so fun. You know when you hear, Timmy start, he won’t, he will not do it on spec, but every now and again he’ll start rattling off in Spanish. And it is absolutely awesome. I love it."

Boise District School Buses at Whittier Elementary, February 2017.
Credit Tom Michael / Boise State Public Radio

Simon and mother Missy go out of their way to make sure their youngest has this opportunity for dual-language immersion. They live miles away, near Longfellow Elementary, where their middle child attends. Their oldest is at North Junior High.

Missy sees the need for a rebuild – inside and out – pointing to the chaos during after-school pickup.

"There’s no pickup location. So parents are parking all over the place. Cars are driving through the crosswalk as the kids are trying to go. Just the whole setup of it is not, I mean, it’s not as safe as it could be."

And back inside, it’s just as chaotic. Kids are playing basketball in the multi-purpose room.

"We have just one room for a gymnasium, a cafeteria and a performing arts center," Missy explains. "That just isn’t suitable for all of these kids. When you go see the lunch line, it’s like a line at Disneyland. It goes so far out. Because we can’t even fit the kids in the . . . in the café-gym-a-torium. So the school building. Well, we need a whole new building to serve the needs of the kids."

Students at Whittier Elementary, Boise, February 2017.
Credit Tom Michael / Boise State Public Radio

And that’s what the bond would bring. An entirely new building, says principal Brendefur.

"A cafeteria that was built to feed 300 kids, has to feed 550. It’s just too small. If you walk up and down our halls we have refrigerators and freezers in the hallway."

At one of the refrigerators in the hallway, Timothy’s teacher, Kelly Rich, is having trouble saying good night to a colleague.

"Where she’s standing right there, if I’m in my classroom, she can’t hear me talking because the refrigerators are all so loud," Rich says. Laughing, she estimates the distance as six to 10 feet. 

Those refrigerators are essential, since about nine out of 10 kids at Whittier Elementary qualify for free or reduced lunch. Brendefur says, "We draw from a diverse population both socio-economically, ethnically, linguistically."

And a rebuild is not just for today, but for tomorrow. Three hundred new students entered the Boise School district this year, and experts predict continued growth in the student population over the next decade. 

Boise State Public Radio and Idaho Education News are partnering to produce a week-long series on how the March 14 statewide school elections affect students, communities and taxpayers.

Find Tom Michael on Twitter @Tom2Michael

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