When it comes to public education in the Flathead, the sky is literally falling. At Whitefish Central School, ceiling tiles threaten to plummet earthward in the middle of a lesson. The fifth through eighth grade facility built in 1912 is home to so many hazards, voters are expected to readily approve a $10.2 million bond this month that promises to fix the “life-safety issues” plaguing the school. Count among them the potential for a replay of the earthquake that damaged the facility in the early part of the last century.
Whitefish High School, on the other hand, has the misfortune of secure ceiling tiles and no history of earthquake damage. Lacking these causes for alarm, proponents of a $10.4 million high school bond are playing the Columbine card in their efforts to win support. They note the many ways students freely come and go from the campus, then let the voters’ imagination take over from there.
If the threat of a gun and pipe bomb massacre isn’t enough to sway voters, Lin Akey, a member of a citizen’s committee backing both bonds, throws in a few more concerns. During a recent PowerPoint presentation at the Rocky Mountain Lodge, he defended the need to build more gym, locker room and physical education space by pointing out that 300,000 Americans die each year from ailments attributed to poor diet and lack of exercise. He noted that teenage athletes are less likely than non-athletes to get pregnant.
“And this is the one that really stuck with me,” he said, describing how “kids born today are expected to live shorter lives than their parents.”
If bond supporters seem like they’ve assumed a bunker mentality, it’s because the education cause has recently endured a shelling on several fronts. In Helena, legislators continue to balk at adequate funding for education. And in Kalispell, a group of voters upset with the recent passage of the Flathead Valley Community College bond remains on the warpath.
In Whitefish, the anti-tax drumbeat is making bond-backers jumpy. During the recent gathering at the Lodge, one parent of a four-year-old said that if the Whitefish High School bond fails, she’s going to “buy a shack in Columbia Falls” just so she can send her child to high school there. By reputation, Columbia Falls has a superior high school and junior high, but the district is not without financial troubles. Incredibly, members of the district’s English department were recently forced to make the case for English instruction as a necessary part of a well-rounded education.
Behind the education woes in the Flathead is an unbalanced relationship between the number of people moving to the valley and the amount residents are willing to spend on local schools. In the next seven years, the number of people living in the Kalispell district is expected to grow from around 30,000 to 50,000. There’s no way Flathead High School can weather that crashing wave of new students.
Luckily, there are signs that anti-bond sentiment is softening. Just last week, when Akey and others backing the two Whitefish bonds took their cause to the local Moose’s Lodge, they expected a hostile audience. Akey described it as “going into the belly of the beast.” But as it turned out, the Whitefish Moose brotherhood was mostly sympathetic to the school bond cause. Was it the shrill warning about another Columbine, or did the Moose simply get educated on the issue?