Natrona County High will have its own pool at some point in the near future after the school board voted 7-2 to approve the project Monday night. But an attached effort to build a bridge between the main high school and its athletics building was narrowly defeated, a decision that one trustee said would cause the board to look like “a bunch of idiots” in years to come.
“I think we made a big mistake tonight,” that trustee, Kevin Christopherson, said after the votes. “And I think we’re going to regret it.”
The board considered the two Natrona County High projects Monday night, construction that was estimated to cost $11 million in all. The pool carries a $10.23 million price tag, while the bridge would’ve cost about $770,000. Board members have long said they supported the pool, a project that taxpayers declined to ante up for in a bond issue in 2014.
Christopherson, who championed both projects, said he took the bond vote in 2014 as county residents telling the board in 2014 that they were taxed enough. The board began saving that year, he continued, sacking away $1 million a year. The rest of the money came from savings from the county recreation board, which assesses a mill levy — 70 percent of which goes to the school district.
Asked earlier this month if he was just pushing to use taxpayer money to fund a project the residents had already rejected, Christopherson said no because the pool was well within the scope of what the recreation money should be and because the rest of the money was school district funding that they had saved.
The typically empty school board meeting was packed Monday night, as swimmers, parents and community members crowded the meeting and the microphone to ask the board to support the project. Shannon Harris, NC’s principal, spoke briefly in support of the bridge, as well.
The swimmers and parents repeatedly noted that NC students have to drive across town for practice and for swimming classes, which cuts down on instructional time.
“Now is the time to do this right,” one man, who said he was one of 11 children educated in Natrona County, told the board.
The pool had brought support across the board, though two trustees — Kianna Smith and Angela Coleman — voted against it. Both cited the high price tag. Coleman has been a vocal critic of the board’s decision to close four schools in June 2018, a decision made to save the district $2.5 million annually and fill empty seats in other Natrona County schools.
You have free articles remaining.
Christopherson addressed that concern earlier this month. He noted the money being spent from school district savings — about $5 million — is one-time money and wouldn’t have been able to keep the schools open permanently. Still, Coleman again noted the closures Monday night and how the board had closed the schools to save money but was now spending $5 million in savings for a pool.
In any case, the board approved a practice pool with a deep-end diving well for Natrona County High. No timeline has yet been attached to the project. District officials have said the pool will be built as an attachment to the high school’s athletics building.
When the vote was counted and chairwoman Rita Walsh announced that the pool would be built, the room broke out in applause.
While the pool proposal enjoyed support even among the trustees who voted against it, the bridge had no such love. The concept was pitched by the board’s infrastructure committee as a safety and security project, which would keep students within the infrastructure of NC throughout the day. It would’ve also be a convenience that would’ve kept students inside during the winter and would’ve saved staff hours.
Still, the rest of the board questioned whether it was worth the money, why only NC would get such a bridge and why the project wasn’t considered when NC was being significantly renovated in recent years.
Christopherson and fellow trustee and infrastructure committee member Ray Cattelier both said they initially thought the bridge was an extravagance that wasn’t needed. But both said they came around on the issue, and Christopherson offered full-throated support for the project.
“This is a 50-year project,” he said. “We have the opportunity to do this project right. And 10 years from now, if it’s not done right, some other board is going to do it.”
He added that the future board that did build the bridge would pay three times as much and that those trustees would look back on this board as “a bunch of idiots.”
The critics weren’t swayed. Chairwoman Walsh quipped that it snowed everywhere in Natrona County, a comment that drew scoffs from the NC-heavy audience. Trustee Dana Howie said she was still concerned about finances, especially with the state still staring down a $250 million education shortfall. She said the $770,000 should be spent on other security projects.
Howie added that she was concerned about the perception that NC was getting the bridge while Kelly Walsh students had to walk from their building to the aquatics center, which also houses that school’s musical classes. More NC kids use that athletic building, but it wasn’t a tiny minority at KW, she said.
The board then voted to kill the proposal, 5-4. Catellier, Christopherson, Dave Applegate and Clark Jensen all voted in support.
Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann