The Blaine County school board got its first taste of public reaction to a potential plant facilities levy Tuesday night during a public workshop at Hailey Elementary School.

About 40 parents, teachers and students took the serpentine walk to the school’s cafeteria, where they weighed in on the balance of the draft $40 million proposal to pay for maintenance, technology and construction over the next 10 years.

Their responses hit notes that the district’s Finance Committee, which developed the plan, heard coming after it decided not to replace the building that housed the workshop. The most common worry was for the future of Hailey Elementary—and how its allotment compared to expansion plans the levy would finance at Ernest Hemingway STEAM School in Ketchum.

Sooner or later, several people said, the district will have to bite the bullet—and foot the bill.

“Money would be spent trying to improve Hailey Elementary, when there are much greater problems here we’re not going to solve,” said James Steel, a Hailey Elementary parent. “Why are we throwing money at it?”

That was a major question, too, among the teachers, administrators and community members who came up with the proposed levy.

The 90,000-square-foot building dates back to at least 1938, according to a memo to the Finance Committee, and its patchwork halls show the signs of the extensive remodeling, if not planning, that helped it accommodate nearly every grade offered by the district. The consensus is clear: Hailey needs a new building. But, after nearly a year of work, the committee balked at the roughly $30 million cost of replacing the school. At that price, they reasoned, replacing the sprawling building would dominate the debate among voters, putting the rest of the levy at risk.

Instead, they prioritized $2.3 million in projects to tide the aging building over—in the processes, bringing it in range of the $3 million earmarked to attach eight new classrooms to Hemingway as it completes its expansion through eighth grade.  

“I don’t want this levy living or dying on Hailey Elementary,” committee member Jaymie Stimac, a math teacher at Wood River High School, said during its final meeting on Sept. 26. “But what we do build, it’s going to be demolished. So, we need to be thoughtful about these projects.”

Steel’s second concern was a common one, too: With classrooms open at Wood River Middle School, why build more at Hemingway?

“In essence, you’re spending money to house more middle school students who do not exist,” he said. “It’s not a criticism of the program [at Hemingway]—but it’s money toward something that’s not a need.”

Other speakers put it in blunter terms. Their point, long anticipated by district brass, came through clear: If the advocates want to get the 55 percent of votes required to pass a plant facilities levy, they’ll will have to navigate a regional rivalry to do it.

“Hailey’s going to be put on the backburner for another 10 years—meanwhile, Hemingway’s getting a new wing,” Hailey teacher Mary Barron said. “That’s not going to sit well with people in this area.”

That aside, though, Tuesday’s meeting tended toward praise of the Finance Committee’s work.

“We didn’t just look up and down the halls” committee member Len Harlig said, “We looked in the closets, too.”

Staff, in particular, appreciated that, including Brenda Southwick, a teacher at Wood River Middle School.

“That was a good approach,” she said. “The people in the schools know what these schools need.”

Email the writer: mdee@mtexpress.com

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