The Salmon School District’s middle school is unsafe according to the state of Idaho. It has structural problems and a heavy snow could cave in parts of the roof. The 940 student district on the Montana Border has been trying for years to convince voters to pay for a new building. Tuesday Salmon weighs in on the issue for the 9th time.
The school board wants one new building to replace its 75 year old middle school and its 55 year old elementary. They’ve held eight bond votes so far. One had a slim majority in favor but none have come close to the two thirds majority needed to pass. Gail Baer chairs the board. She says they keep asking because building a new school would be more economical than repairs, even without considering the damaged walls and foundation.
“Neither of these buildings is compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act,” Baer says. “The heating systems in both buildings are at their life’s’ end. We get a lot of rust in the pipes; the first water out of the tap is kind of a reddish color.”
Salmon resident Lloyd Jones is 75, the same age as the middle school. He went there when it was the district's high school. He’s retired now from a career in construction that took him all over the world. He says there’s no point in putting any more money into the middle school and the elementary, he says needs serious work.
But Jones is one of the most vocal opponents of the bond efforts. The reason he gives is demographics. The U.S. Census Bureau says that while Idaho’s population is growing, Salmon’s Lemhi County is shrinking. It declined more than 2 percent from 2010 to 2012. Jones blames the economy.
“Drive down Main St. you can see what’s going on,” Jones says. “Go out by the beam plant; go out where the saw mills used to be. All these things come together and people see this and they say shoosh, what is the future here? Well if you’re not a rancher very little and if you are a rancher you’re under the gun already.”
Jones says Salmon taxpayers simply can’t afford a new school. But either way their taxes will soon go up. This time around the ballot is a bit different. Instead of just the bond to build the new school ($14.6 million over 20 years) there’s a choice of a bond for repairs to meet safety standards ($3.6 million over six years.)
But because state inspectors deemed the buildings unsafe, if voters don’t approve either choice the state will step in and pay for the repairs. Salmon will have to pay the state back within five years. That’s through Idaho’s Revolving School Fund. It’s a $25 million dollar pot for districts with unsafe schools that, like Salmon, have tried unsuccessfully to pass bonds. But in the seven years since the legislature created the fund only one district has managed to get money from it (north Idaho’s Plummer-Worley district.)
Salmon School Board members hoped it would pay for the new school they’ve been asking voters for. But fund managers can only give out the minimum amount necessary to remove threats to students’ physical safety. So Salmon voters aren’t deciding this time if they want their taxes to go up, but how much and for what.
Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio