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What's in Store for Clark Fork High School

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District ponders removing distance learning classroom

     Steve Battenschlag’s goal of creating a continuing education center on the grounds of Lake Pend Oreille School District’s administration office in Ponderay has sparked controversy amongst other groups also working to bring post-secondary education opportunities to the area. But that controversy is nothing compared to the concern of parents of students in Hope and Clark Fork, who believe Battenschlag will achieve his goals, in part, by taking the compressed video classroom out of Clark Fork High School and moving it into Ponderay.

     “This is the one ‘extra’ thing we have at Clark Fork,” explained parent and educator Cindy Gauthier. “It’s the main link for our children to a full education; it helps fill the gaps. (The classroom) balances the scale with what it can offer our kids.”

     Brought to the school over four years ago, the classroom is a technology hug that allows students and teachers to connect, via video, fax and computers, with any other similar facility, anywhere in the world.

     In practice, that means students have used the class to take introductory Japanese, psychology, mathematics, college level English and calculus.

     It’s not just students who have benefited from the classroom, however. Two instructors at North Idaho College have taught their Coeur d’Alene classes while standing in the heart of Clark Fork. Local vet Bruce Pederson, along with his wife, Heather Mehra-Pederson, have used to classroom to teach veterinary science to students at Clark Fork and students in New Jersey at the same time. Community businesses have also utilized the room, for a fee, to connect with other businesses. Seemingly unknown to the people in the east end of the county, as well as those in western Sanders County, Montana, the classroom is also available to the general public interested in taking classes from North Idaho College.

     Parents at the school are not eager to lose this resource, and were dismayed to hear, after two public meetings in Sandpoint where Battenschlag discussed his plans for the administration office, that they might do so.

     Battenschlag, however, says that concern regarding the fate of the classroom is too much, too early. “Everybody jumps ahead of themselves,” he said. “I want to look at why we have it there, and I’m coming out to talk with the community about their vision for their school.” He says the idea of moving the classroom  is not, “set in stone,” and adds that he has no expectation of any decision resulting in a “loss of services to students.”

     Nonetheless, he has serious reservations about Clark Fork High School being an appropriate location for the high-tech classroom. “NIC funded the compressed video classroom and is getting very little utilization out of it,” he said.

     From Battenschlag’s standpoint, it comes down to money. “The classroom costs us money,” he explained, “and it’s not being utilized enough to pay its way.”

     The $80,000 worth of equipment in the room was paid for through an EDC grant, and that grant also pays the salary of a “site coordinator” for the room, and takes care of maintenance of the equipment. The school district’s investment is to provide the space, and to pay the approximately $400 per month bill for the T-1 connection that allows the room to work.

     Although members of the community question whether it was ever supposed to be about money, Dr. Candace Wheeler, director of distance education for North Idaho College, points out that “the original grant was for economic development.”

     “The intent of NIC is to meet the needs of the community (of the Lake Pend Oreille school district) in the best way possible, and (our) partnership is with the school district. It’s about being fair to the (whole) community,” she added. “If the school district believes the best use of the classroom is to move it into Ponderay, we have agreed to take that jointly to the Board (that oversees the distance learning program). We have agreed that whatever solution meets the needs of the community, NIC is okay with that.”

     “The trick is, you’ve got to be an originator, which generates revenue. Otherwise, we’re just paying out money,” said Battenschlag.

     From the community’s standpoint, however, it’s administrative staffing decisions that prevent utilization of the classroom. In order to originate classes, a teacher has to teach them, and teachers have to be paid- additional revenue that Battenschlag won’t commit to the school. A plan to offer Spanish 3 from Clark Fork was shot down for just that reason- the teacher would have had to be paid for her work. Two classes in psychology, taught by local resident Bert Jackson, were canceled this year when Jackson’s schedule placed him at Sandpoint High School during the time he was needed to teach in Clark Fork. A math class was also canceled this fall. Parents blame Battenschlag for those circumstances.

     Battenschlag defends his staffing decisions, however, by pointing out Clark Fork isn’t generating enough revenue (through enrollment) to allow him to increase, or even maintain, staff levels there.

     “Enrollment is continuing to deteriorate in Clark Fork and Hope,” he said. “I’ve tried to do everything I can,” he added and pointed out that he approved funding for a kindergarten program at Hope Elementary when only 8 students at the time were enrolled in the class. At Clark Fork High School, the music program has been reduced and the counseling position remains unfilled after being cut from a full time position to a half time one. Seniors were ensured they were enrolling in classes that would meet graduation requirements only through the volunteer efforts of the previous counselor, along with additional time invested by the school principal. That principal, however, is no longer even a full-time administrator; principal Rick Dalessio is now responsible for administrative duties at the elementary school, as well.

     “What they’re complaining about is yeah, they’re losing staff, but I’m not the one doing this,” Battenschlag responded, explaining that funding for staffing is determined by the state and is based on enrollment. “There’s only 128 students at Clark Fork,” he said, and the school covers six grades. “I’m coming from the standpoint of wanting to help keep schools in their communities,” he added. “Even though I’m a businessman, I often make decisions in favor of educational opportunities for students. I always try to balance prudent financial decisions with what is best for children.

       “People should call me if they have concerns,” he stated. “At least give me a chance to answer their questions.”

     While the continuation of a secondary school in Clark Fork may not be in jeopardy at this time, however, Battenschlag will offer no such assurances regarding the school’s “classroom of the future.”

     “I have no problem leaving (the classroom) there,” he said, but added that the onus was now on the community- if they want to keep their classroom, they have to come up with a plan that makes it pay its own way. He also believes it’s possible that students needs can still be served by other means, even if the compressed video classroom is moved, and asks anyone interested to meet with him with an open mind.

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Landon Otis

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