Polson school bond vote approaches
POLSON — At Cherry Valley Elementary in Polson, the wriggly kindergarten and first grade students forming a line for recess are among those whose futures will be most impacted by votes cast in the next few weeks. After all, these kids are apt to spend the next 12 years learning, playing, and growing in the four schools encompassed by the Polson School District.
District voters received ballots in the mail last week asking their support for bond measures that could, if approved, dramatically improve the educational environment for all the district’s students.
At first glance, kids are thriving in the elementary school, built in 1963. In Kaitlyn Keniston’s pre-kindergarten class, four- and five-year-olds exuberantly practice their letter sounds before recess. The grant-funded pre-K program helps these 16 kids get a head start “so when they get to kindergarten they just fly,” says Keniston.
A few doors down the hallway, first graders take turns reading aloud from “The Lost Treasure of Captain Kidd.” Veteran teacher Joanie Bowen counsels kids to “pause and stop and think at the end of every page. That’s what good readers do. They ask themselves questions, they write down what they think is important and they have opinions about what they read.”
As they head out the door for recess, she urges them to be “quiet and respectful and kind all the way down the hall.” Most succeed.
Bowen joined the staff at Cherry Valley in 2003 and loves working with this inquisitive, energetic age group. “There’s nothing better than the enthusiasm of first graders,” she says. “They’re very open minded and have no qualms about learning new things – they’re just ready to go.”
John Gustafson, who taught at Linderman for seven years, and spent a year at Polson Middle School before becoming principal at Cherry Valley this year, admires the passion, patience and experience his teachers possess. Watching them instruct 20 little kids in a classroom “is a pretty spectacular thing,” he says.
And yet, teachers accomplish this feat in a cramped building that’s almost 60 years old. Speech pathologists tutor students in the hallway, as their peers enter and exit adjacent classrooms. “Can you imagine trying to fine tune your speech when all this going on around you and you can’t hear the teacher talking to you?”
Intervention specialists are in the same boat, helping students who need extra support in hallways, closets, or in the room that also serves as gym and cafeteria, making it even harder to learn and teach.
And then there’s the challenge of an aging facility, ill-equipped for 21st century education. Cherry Valley is heated with a boiler salvaged from a Korean War-era ship. Windows glaze over with ice during the winter and rooms swelter as summer approaches. And despite the fact that Polson is growing, all four of the district’s schools “are packed to the gills” with students and have been since Gustafson joined the district in 2012.
“This is not a new problem,” he says. “Something needs to change.”
The bond issue, if approved, delivers that change. Cherry Valley, built in 1963, is targeted to receive $16.23 million for a new wing to house eight classrooms, a new front entry, a combined gym and dining commons, and a music room with a stage. The 74-year-old Linderman would receive $9. 16 million to add a music room and expand its library (both displaced when the new gym was built), build a wing to accommodate fifth graders, improve student restrooms and update the dining area and serving kitchen.
The middle school, constructed 30 years ago, receives the most modest allotment at $6.72 million. Those funds would facilitate an extensive remodel, including an upgrade to the central kitchen, where all the district’s meals are prepared, expanding the dining area and school commons, remodeling restrooms, converting standard classrooms to accommodate special education students and adding an outdoor learning area.
The three schools would also be reorganized, with pre-K through second grades housed at Cherry Valley (now K through first), grades three through five at Linderman (currently second through fourth) and grades six through eight at the middle school (currently fifth through eighth).
According to veteran teacher Bowen, that alignment better reflects students’ “developmental continuum.”
The reorganization “makes sense to all of us and I think it makes sense to parents too – most would rather have fifth graders at Linderman,” she says. “And it would be wonderful have second grade here so we can follow what’s going on with those kiddos when they leave our classroom.”
The high school, built in 1972, is on the ballot for $17.76 million. The majority would be used to finance a new two-story addition on the school’s north side to replace aging and unsafe modular units. The addition would house classrooms and labs devoted to science, career training and technology, a metals shop, and music and art rooms.
Security will be significantly beefed up at all four buildings. “You want to think that nothing’s going to happen,” said Gustafson. “But in the world we live in, you have to be prepared if the worst happens – our number one priority is keeping our kids safe.”
Removing or encapsulating hazardous materials, such as asbestos and lead, is also part of the project, as well as enhanced fire protection, and new water, sewer and electrical services as needed.
“I just feel the community needs to rally to support our schools because this is what feeds our community,” says Gustafson. “We need strong schools, a good place for our kids to grow. They spend a lot of time here so it’s important that we have good facilities to do it right.”
If both measures pass, they would raise nearly $50 million for district-wide renovations. That’s $10 million less than a bond proposal that was defeated two years ago. Since then, the district has worked hard to find a “no-fluff” solution that’s hopefully more palatable to voters, who haven’t passed a bond levy in 20 years.
Federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds were deployed to address heating, ventilation and air conditioning issues, reducing the cost to local taxpayers. The budget was also trimmed by eliminating a proposed events center from the high school bond measure.
The current proposals would cost property owners $79.49 annually on a home valued at $100,000 and $158.98 per year for a $200,000 home for the elementary bond; and $26.86 for a home valued at $100,000 or $53.71 for a $200,000 home for the high school.
Bowen points out that if voters continue to oppose school improvements, the price-tag will keep going up. “Fingers crossed that our community can come out and support Polson schools because we need it this time,” she said. “We really need it.”
She believes the bond resolutions, if passed, represent an investment in the community and its future. “We have a wonderful place to live. What’s the foundation of that? Our schools and how we raise our children,” she says. “Our mantra this year is ‘Polson Strong.’ We want our community to have the best possible instruction, best possible teachers and facilities that are something we can be proud of and would want our kids to spend every day in for nine months.”
For more information on the bond measures, including a video presentation and an interactive tax calculator, visit www.polson.k12.mt.us/bond. Ballots were mailed April 13 and need to be returned to the election office in the Lake County Courthouse by mail or in person by 5 p.m. May 3.