School Maintenance and “Out of the Box” Thinking

Time on the school board has brought building maintenance and neglect thereof to my mind.  Unfortunately, the only school that has done a respectable job is Fortine.  Here at Trego, we received a new school at Federal expense in the mid-sixties so that the community would be capable of serving the many kids who came in with parents working on the tunnel and railroad relocation.  Fifty years went by without establishing a building reserve fund or a maintenance schedule.  A new building doesn’t need much maintenance – but planning for maintenance, scheduling maintenance, and having a building reserve to pay for maintenance keeps from having to call for a special levy and passing a bond.  We have started the building reserve fund – but it should have been started at least 25 years earlier.

It’s easy to defer maintenance.  There is always someone who needs money for a different purpose – and the building stands quietly when it is short-changed.  I have a lot of respect for the school boards that stay conscious of the fact that it’s cheaper (in the long run) to maintain the school than go to the voters to authorize a bond to build a new one. 

So I’m reading the Tobacco Valley News, and I notice that we’re not alone – Rebecca Nelson’s article (p5, V62, I42) tells of Eureka’s woes:

“Mepham said he believed the bond wouldn’t have passed, but that the district absolutely needs new buildings.  “To put all our money into one K-4 building with the idea that someday we’re gonna get some more money and put it into the junior high, that’s good in theory, but the bottom line is, that means the junior high would have to make 20 more years in the condition it’s in.” he said.

Mepham reminded the board of a 2007 facilities report which he said essentially put the junior high as the worst facility in Montana, with the elementary close behind.  Now the most urgent needs are for a boiler at the junior high and a roof for the high school, each with a price tag of at least a quarter of a million dollars.  “We’re going to nickel and dime this district to death.” he said.”

Tobacco Valley News, article by Rebecca Nelson

That’s an interesting choice of words – the purpose of a building reserve fund is to accumulate nickels and dimes so that the school can have the funds to pay for maintenance projects as they are needed – without passing special levies.

Mepham acknowledged the restrictions of the elementary district’s bonding capacity and rising construction costs, and suggested it might be good to think outside the box and make use of the higher bonding capacity of the high school district, to build a new high school and junior high and remodel the current high school as an elementary.”

Tobacco Valley News, article by Rebecca Nelson

I’m not sure that turning Lincoln County High School into an elementary is out of the box thinking. There was a boiler in the building when I attended LCHS, and I have a strong suspicion that folks thought outside the box and made use of the higher bonding capacity of the high school district then remodeled my old school into Eureka Middle School.  If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, Superintendent Mepham wants to get the taxpayers of Trego and Fortine to help pay for a new high school so that the old one can go to replace the unmaintained buildings in Eureka.  Sweet Jesus, Mepham, can’t you even bring a box of chocolates first? 

Darris Flanagan’s book: Eureka Montana Standing the Tests of Time, on p.20 tells of the origins of this “outside the box” scheme: “In 1955 a new grade school was built.  A major administration change occurred in when a joint board with LCHS and Roosevelt Grade School operating together just as they still do today.  Voting is complicated with Trego and Fortine board members voting only when an item concerns the high school.”

I think that translates something like “The LCHS board members from Eureka can outvote the two from Trego and Fortine.”  It’s good to get a little bit of a heads-up before they come to us with a tax levy for a bigger bond. 

Flanagan also pointed out “In 1955 a new grade school was built.”  That’s less than a dozen years older than Trego.  I’m not sure that we shouldn’t be looking at building a high school in Fortine – they have a record of maintaining their buildings.


Nearby School Rankings

I’ve worked in a system where school rankings were always in the background – in my world, MIT and Cal Tech were always at the top, then the Ivys, moving down to a sub-Ivy League bunch that rated above my land grants, and then lower tiered schools ending at community and junior colleges. 

Spending a bit of time on the school board has me watching the next level – high schools.  I’m patiently waiting to see how the ACT scores place our local schools – but until that data is released, other scores exist.

US News rates high schools – I was familiar with their college rankings (there is something humbling about working with a couple that are recognized above the place that employs you).  So I checked their website to see where Lincoln County High School ranked.

“Lincoln County High School is ranked 63-85th within Montana. The total minority enrollment is 14%, and 54% of students are economically disadvantaged.”

US News

Whitefish was #2.  Glacier was #12.  Flathead #16.  Libby #33.  Columbia Falls #37.  Thompson Falls #48.  LCHS tied with Troy – between 63 and 85, at the bottom of the ranked high schools.

Niche also ranks LCHS.  The numbers require a bit of thinking – how can the state champions score 90th in the state in the category “best high school for athletes in Montana”?  (I think I’ve figured it out, but my hypothesis needs more data – while boys athletic participation is rated average, girls participation is rated at very low)  One of the upbeat rankings was the faculty – number 34 in the state, with an A- rating on the school’s report card.  On the other hand, academics are rated at C+ . . . a bit hard to reconcile with a teaching staff that is rated at A-.  Administration was rated at B, and food at B+ (hard for me to understand, but back when I went to school Mrs. Grace Cuffe ran the kitchen).

They did point out that “In Eureka there are a lot of bars.”  I suspect the reviewers didn’t understand the cultural aspects that accompany the nickname “Tijuana del norte.”  Ah, well, one day soon we can expect to see the ratings based on ACT results.

I’ll be glad when we can see ratings for Trego – 3 years ago, when I got on the board, we were down to 4 or 5 students.  Now we’re right around 30 students in 8 grades, and getting close to a spot where there are enough students in a class that scores can stay confidential. 


Supporting our Local School

I’ve watched the support for a high school that fields a state championship football team.  It’s a pleasant support to watch.  I see conflict about a teacher showing an R-rated movie about the life of Frida Kahlo in class – some want punishment for the teacher, others write of the teacher’s quality.  I have to admit – if I wanted to pick a painter with more controversial components, Kahlo gives a lot more options to get excited than most.  Bisexual, Communist, an easy topic for disagreement – yet the disagreement demonstrates that we care about our schools and students. 

I guess the question boils down to what we want taught and what we would rather keep concealed from our community’s adolescents.  It looks like pride in the football team gets great support, and a film about a bisexual, communist Mexican artist gets folks picking sides.  I’m challenged in understanding high school football – but I’ve watched men who were fifty years old reliving a game they played against each other 35 years earlier.  Eureka’s high school football players get something out of the sport.  It has value.  Likewise, there is value to learning tolerance.  Whether we’re part of a large group enjoying the school’s success in football, or picking a side in favor of showing or suppressing a movie about Frida Kahlo, we’re taking an interest in the school.  But we may be on the wrong topic – a good, even a great athletic team doesn’t correlate with good or great academics.  And showing a controversial film doesn’t correlate with good academics. 

SchoolDigger provides rankings of all of Montana’s schools – well, most of Montana’s schools.  When I got on the school board at Trego, the school wasn’t ranked . . . but it was also down to 4 or 5 students, depending on when you did the count.  Last year, with Covid, the testing didn’t occur.  Still, we have some data available.

When I searched Lincoln County High School, I read “SchoolDigger: Rank 113th of 137 Montana districts.”  The chart below that statement shows that, back in 2013, Lincoln County High School rose into the top half of high schools. 

If the average is 50%, the chart shows that Montana is not making the average, and LCHS performed dramatically below average.  Staying with the percentages makes the scores easy to understand – and remember, the performance of all students has been compiled and averaged.

ACT Composite32.4%20.7%52.0%33.3%

The numbers are extreme.  Only in English do LCHS students approach the state average.  Go back up and look at them.  These kids are my neighbors.  They aren’t morons.  Our schools are allowing them to be left behind.  I’m not looking at national norms – just comparing LCHS with the state average.  When I began teaching at Trinidad State Junior College, I learned a vocational education mantra: “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.”  For some reason, our students haven’t learned.

We take pride in a state high school football championship.  It feels pretty lonely to be in the group that reads of the LCHS rank on academics – nobody has mentioned it to me.   Still, I would much prefer to see LCHS ranked number 1 of 137 Montana districts on the SchoolDigger page. 

I’m not asking folks to petition the superintendent to punish or exonerate a teacher for showing an R-rated movie.  Not when the high school rank is 25th from the bottom.   The lowest fifth.  I am suggesting we press the board, the superintendent, the principal, the teachers, the guidance guy, to take a first step – LCHS needs to rise from the gutter to the curb.  The step after that can be reaching the state average.  After all, they have surpassed that goal 50 miles to the south.

I don’t know how long it will take before LCHS can rise to showing even mediocre performance on SchoolDigger.   The past couple of rankings are based on how students perform on the ACT in their junior year.  Every student takes the test.  A half-century ago, it was like the football team – the students taking the ACT were self-selecting.  Now, regardless of your beliefs about college placement exams every student in the state takes the same exam,

SchoolDigger shows that we pay $9,347 per student to achieve this ranking.  Whitefish pays $10,756 to be ranked third.  If LCHS could miraculously jump to third place just by raising the budget by 15%, I’d say “DO IT NOW.”  It is probably a part of the solution – we have to go down the list to 58th place Billings’ Skyview high school to find a lower $9,158 in per pupil expenditures.  Still, I believe that the first change is attitude – and a state athletic championship doesn’t offset this level of tested academic performance.