In a rare moment of public disagreement, the Natrona County school board argued Monday night over a pair of projects for its west side high school that would cost the district roughly $11 million.
“It doesn’t sit well with me, and it’s because you’ve chosen to tie it to safety and security,” board chairwoman Rita Walsh told the board’s infrastructure committee, referring to a bridge project that would connect Natrona County High and its athletic building. “That, to me, is a ruse to get the community behind the project.”
“Almost the entire student population (of NC) goes from the MAC back to school,” countered trustee Kevin Christopherson, referring to NC’s athletic complex that would be connected to the main building by the bridge. “I just think for $700,000 it’s a no-brainer.”
The disagreement took place during the board’s work session, before its Monday night meeting. The room was packed with NC swimmers and supporters of the program — including NC principal Shannon Harris and one of her assistant principals. The board had been discussing the pool and bridge projects for some time in smaller settings, but Monday’s discussion was the first time they had been brought before the entire board. The board was slated to vote on whether to advance the construction later this month.
At the heart of the disagreement are two intertwined projects, which supporters say should be done together to limit cost.
First is a practice pool at NC, which is estimated to cost just over $10 million. That money, trustee Clark Jensen said, would come from savings: about half from district savings and half from savings from the district’s share of a recreation mill levy.
The second project is the bridge, which would cost more than $700,000 and is being pitched as a safety expenditure — justified as such because it keeps kids inside the school and limits entry and exit — and would be paid for by funds that have been earmarked for security.
The board has had its share of hefty decisions in recent years, primarily when its chose to close five schools over the span of a year.
Still, even those discussions didn’t prompt as much public — albeit civil — argument as Monday’s debate about the pool and bridge.
There was little agreement on either project, though most board members said they wanted NC to have a pool. Walsh questioned why NC needed a diving well for a practice pool. She said she wanted the infrastructure committee to come back with a more “practical” design for the pool. Dana Howie, another trustee, said she was leery about the price, noting that capital construction projects typically run over. Trustee Angela Coleman noted that the school board was just a year removed from closing schools to save money, and Debbie McCullar added that it had been years since teachers had received a raise.
The projects’ vocal supporters — Christopherson and fellow infrastructure committee members Ray Catellier and Dave Applegate — countered that the diving well made sense because otherwise NC divers would still need to travel to Kelly Walsh to practice. There was money folded into the budget to absorb overrun, Applegate said. The money being spent was a lot, they said, but it was one-time money — meaning it wasn’t a recurring pile of cash that could be tapped for permanent raises or reopening a school.
“I just think it’s a lot of money for a bridge,” McCullar said, after wondering aloud when the board would focus more money on academics, rather than athletics.
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“We are trying to make the district safe at every school,” Applegate said. Some board members had questioned if this bridge was the best use of school safety dollars — the list of potential security projects is long and would cost as much as $3 million to fully implement. “Again, the board has to prioritize, we have to make choices every year with the money we have. ... I just look at the number of students at NC that are potentially benefiting from the bridge.”
Walsh, unconvinced, said the bridge was “nice” and called it a “convenience.” Applegate replied that he wasn’t supporting the project because it was convenient.
“We characterize it as a safety feature; we have school of choice, so now parents choose the safest place to go to school,” Walsh replied.
There is also the matter of the money. The bridge funding is already available as part of safety and security funding. The pool money, meanwhile, is a bit trickier. It also has a history: The county several years ago narrowly voted down a bond issue that would’ve funded a pool and other projects. Board members have said they understood the bond result as the community saying, “Pay for it with what you have.”
So the board began to save, and as of now, there’s $5 million in savings set aside by the trustees to pay for the pool. On top of that, the board would tap other savings — from the recreation mill levy — to pay for the rest of the aquatics project.
Christopherson told the Star-Tribune after the meeting that by next summer, the recreation mill levy savings would reach about $5.4 million. The board that oversees that money has been saving it “generally” for several years, he said, distributing some funds but largely storing money away for a pool or something similar. He said the recreation board — the body that oversees the money — previously funded the Discover Program in the district.
But Christopherson said the program was expensive and gave little return to the district, so the recreation board ended it and began to store money away. He said a pool was the exact type of project that the mill levy should fund.
Still, the public rejected publicly funding a pool several years ago. Now, the board is using different public money to pay for it anyway.
Christopherson rejected the notion that the board was ignoring the public’s vote. He said the message from the voters was to not add any new taxes. The mill levy that funds the recreation board has existed for 15 years, and again, he said, this is the type of project that such recreation boards typically pay for. The pool would be public, he and others said repeatedly throughout Monday night.
It’s unclear where the board stands in the wake of the Monday night discussion. During the regular board meeting after the work session, several swimmers and parents, as well as Harris, asked the board to support the pool and support Natrona County. Harris added that the bridge was a critical part of the high school’s security.
The board was originally slated to vote on the project in two weeks. Walsh had asked Jensen, who chairs the infrastructure committee, to take another look at the project. But it’s unclear if the committee will do so, or if the project will come up for an uncertain judgment on Sept. 23.