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Whose Vision is this, Anyway?

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Achieving secondary education in the local area is a collaborative effort

PONDERAY, IDAHO- Recently the Bonner Education and Technology Alliance (BETA) held a meeting that was designed to be inclusive of many of our community’s key decision makers.  Attendees included the Sandpoint Mayor, Bonner County commissioners, Senator Shawn Keough, officials from the University of Idaho (U of I) and North Idaho College (NIC), members of BETA, several local business people and the Lake Pend Oreille School District.  BETA as an organization is focused on expanding two important initiatives to Bonner County.  The first is to increase the availability of high speed Internet connectivity county-wide and the second is to expand the opportunities for post secondary education.  BETA’s mission is broad, requiring a great deal of cooperation, and progress has been steady but slow for this small organization. From an economic development standpoint, both goals (increased telecommunications and the presence of a college) could provide a great deal of momentum to other organizations’ complementary goals of increased economic development in our area. For example, the goal of revitalizing downtown Sandpoint (the Sandpoint Business Association), providing businesses with more tools and therefore more reasons to relocate (the Bonner County Economic Development Corporation) and the goal of advertising Sandpoint as a great place to visit, do business or relocate (the goal of Destination Sandpoint/Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce) are all aided by the ability to advertise the presence of college-level classes and readily available high speed access to the Internet. To date, BETA has completed a telecommunications study of the County’s resources and potential communication expansion plans, released a survey to 700 businesses to determine job training needs, and played an instrumental role in the expanded presence of NIC at the Bonner Building in downtown Sandpoint. This fall, BETA will be conducting workshops and holding public meetings to get more input from County citizens on our education and training needs, as well as explain what expanded telecommunications really means and how our community must go about getting these services at reasonable prices despite our rural location.

     The purpose of the August BETA meeting was to continue the work necessary to identify a site that would be attractive and suitable to further expand post-secondary opportunities.  After completion of the new NIC location approximately two years ago, NIC was able to increase the number of classes offered to Bonner County citizens. Classes have been held at the Sandpoint High School, at the new location behind Lightning Lube and at Coldwater Creek, who graciously made their video teleconferencing system available for long distance learning.  Additionally, the University of Idaho just obtained new teleconferencing video equipment at the Extension Office on Boyer Avenue, thanks to the hard work of Senator Keough, and U of I is now offering a math class via long distance learning.

     “It is clear that these are resources that are very much being used,” explained Dr. Candace Wheeler, director of distance education for North Idaho College. Wheeler said demand for post-secondary classes has far out-stripped the abilities of the classroom in the Bonner Building, and that she’s currently paying to utilize other resources in the community in order to meet demand.

     BETA had several sites identified for the expansion and the advantages and disadvantages of each location were reviewed, so that BETA might begin to seek the funding necessary to convert these initiatives into reality. There are four locations in downtown Sandpoint that have been reviewed. The first is the old Ninth Grade Center, located on the corner of Pine Street and Euclid, owned by Baker Construction and Development. The second location is the current headquarters for Encoder, located on Highway 200, owned by Bill Watts. A third location was also considered, the previous location for the Church of Latter Day Saints, which is now in the process of demolition. The fourth location that was identified was the Administration building of the Lake Pend Oreille School District, located in the old Thorne Research building in Ponderay. 

     In the case of the first location, Brent Baker has already made many structural improvements and the building has successfully been added to the national historic register. The very rough estimated cost is $900,000, which includes the building and the renovations needed to remodel the interior. 

     The second location, the Encoder building, would cost approximately $700,000 and needs less remodeling because it is currently utilized as office space. It will shortly be available because of Encoder’s consolidation of employees to its Westmond/Sagle facility. 

     The fourth location, the school district’s administration building, is favored by the school district as optimal because the school district’s business manager, Steve Battenschlag, sees the additional space as a revenue-making opportunity for the District and he wishes to create a lifelong learning center experience in accordance with the school board’s stated goals and mission. Other locations will hopefully be identified through community input.

     When the detailed process of trying to compare these sites and identify their advantages and disadvantages began, it was Steve Battenschlag who questioned whose vision was this, anyway. It was made clear to the participants that the school district had a vision and all other visioning processes were, at best, superfluous.  Recently it was announced by Battenschlag at a Republican Leadership meeting and at a district school board meeting that discussions were in progress with NIC to relocate their efforts to the Administration building because the school district had the facility, the staff and the resources to support NIC’s expansion.

     Although there is no “agreement” at this time for NIC to deal exclusively with the school district, Dr. Wheeler says NIC is ready to support district (and other) efforts in providing post-secondary education. “We have agreed that (whatever solution) meets the needs of the community, NIC is okay with that.”

     It is clear that the school district wants very much to house the post secondary initiative at their facility. The general concern that this school district marketing directive raises is at whose expense are these resources being made available? If the resources are going to be re-deployed, why are they under-utilized in the first place? If the teachers and administrative staff have the additional time to add post-secondary support responsibilities to their workload, then why does the school district require extra funding and market these needs to the community as potentially dire choices between fundamental neglect of our students or continued growth and improvement of their learning environment? And lastly, why is there a continued increase in the population of “alternative educational activities,” such as charter schools, private schools and home schooling if we have mastered our public secondary educational requirements? 

     These questions represent the necessity of an open dialogue between the parents, the students, the voters and the school district, so that the district is clear on its constituents’ future expectations and current level of satisfaction.

     The most important aspect to BETA’s goal of obtaining post-secondary resources is not the location, but the process. Economic development issues are more often thwarted by conflicting entities that desire singular success in lieu of the more tenuous longer range process of compromise. Any idea whose basis is meritorious will stand above the others without artificial props so hopefully all entities will succeed in providing the community with the services it deserves, provided the community cares enough to communicate its desires.

    

Carol Curtis is the co-owner of Sandpoint Computers, Inc. and is a member of the Bonner Education Technology Alliance.

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Carol Curtis

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