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Politically Incorrect

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Two old coots

Nine-thirty pm on the first day of what was to be a really long week, and I had just finished back-to-back meetings. I was tired, still fighting the cold I got from camping in the rain in the Vermilion, and feeling a little bit overwhelmed by the amount of work I needed to fit into my schedule in the week ahead. I should have been heading for home. Instead, I stood shivering in my short skirt in the parking lot of the high school, deep in conversation with Blaine Stevens and Byron Lewis.

If you want to know anything about schools in particular or education in general, it would be hard to find someone to talk with who knows more than these two men. Blaine served almost 20 years on the school board; Byron's last job in Bonner County's schools was as the director of vocational education - and after retirement, he went on to work as a Superintendent in Noxon for a while. Their memories are prodigious, and their commitment to children has been demonstrated over and over and over. I was talking with two truly incredible men or, as Byron put it, "just two old coots." I couldn't tear myself away.

We talked about a lot of things in that 45 minutes we spent shivering in the cold, and just about all those things had to do with how you live up to your responsibility to the children of your community, especially when it comes to education. "I'm a little disappointed in this community," Byron said. "In my day they'd have held my feet to the fire."

In the day he was talking about, Byron was the principal at Clark Fork; this is still the place where he lives, the home where he's been known to take off down the highway on a skateboard in front of a throng of cheering grandchildren during the fourth of July celebrations.

This is the community that Byron wants to get "fired up" on behalf of the students at both Clark Fork's junior/senior high school, and the elementary school at Hope. Because when these two communities get fired up, good things happen.

After all, they got together and built a field house for the school when it needed one - and built it entirely with donated materials and labor. They did the same thing when they wanted a library. And then they did it again to develop a first-class ambulance/EMT service. When the folks out here decide they want something, they tend to make it happen.

"I'm not disappointed," I said to Byron, defending this place that's been my home this last ten years. "I don't think the community knows what's going on." 

That's when Byron nailed me with a glare. "Well, why not?" he barked. "Girl, you'd better get to work." I may forget sometimes that I make my living printing a newspaper - but nobody else ever lets that slip their mind.

So listen up, Hope and Clark Fork, 'cause Byron's got some feet he wants you to hold to the fire. Your schools need help. No, forget that. Your kids need help. And it's going to take a whole community to fix what's wrong.

What is it that's going on? Although enrollment at the school is up by 12 students this year, for years it has been in decline. And that's mostly because parents are pulling their kids out of Clark Fork and sending them someplace else - to schools where they can get art classes; drama; college prep classes in math and science; a foreign language other than Spanish. They're going in the hope of an athletic scholarship for their kids. They're going because they work in Sandpoint and want their children close by after school. They're home-schooling, or enrolling their children in private schools. But they're going. And with them are going the state and local dollars that help to fund education - those are the dollars that you and I pay in income tax and property tax and even in special levies.

One and a half teachers left Clark Fork this year and weren't replaced. Up until three days before the start of school, we didn't have a kindergarten at Hope. Instructional materials, library books - for a while, even such a simple thing as an aide in the kitchen all fell under the chopping block this year. The carpets at Clark Fork are stained beyond redemption and full of mildew; the front of the building has been boarded up for years. The playground at Hope is littered with rocks. Is this really what we want for our children?

By the end of that long week, I could have drowned in the bathtub, I was so relaxed. Seven days' collection of sore muscles, not enough sleep and too much coffee were evaporating in the steam. And as I lay there, I heard the cheers from the other end of town. I was missing the football game - and it sounded like we were winning.

"These kids are gonna go to state," Francie told me later, while Dustin gave me a blow-by-blow account of our second home game of the season - and our second game to be won under the 45-point mercy rule.

State. That'll be another few thousand dollars to get 'em there - and I don't have any doubt this community will pony up. After all, they do so every year. They do it for volleyball and, come spring, they do it back-to-back for both boy's and girl's basketball. They'll probably raise several thousand more in the Hope/Clark Fork fundraising auction this November.

And if we get the message out that we need their help with something more than money - then I have no doubt that we'll become the best small schools in the state. So Hope and Clark Fork - give the schools a call and find out what you can do. Or, better yet, pick up the phone and dial Byron. Tell him you're ready to build a fire.

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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

education, Blaine Stevens, Clark Fork, Idaho, Byron Lewis

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