by Jimmy Tobias
Mike Magone, the superintendent of the Lolo School District, stands in a cramped bathroom in the lower building of the K-8 school that sits on a hill at the edge of U.S. Highway 93. With one toilet and two urinals, he says it is the only available bathroom for more than 30 sixth grade boys. In a nearby classroom, he points to a plastic bucket on the floor. “We don’t even have a sink in our science classroom,” he laments.
Outside, traffic on the highway roars within 150 feet of that lower building — a remodeled one-room school house with two additional wings that hasn’t seen new construction since the 1960s.
“We have our school on Highway 93, kids going out into the highway, running across,” Magone says. “When we have crossing guards here it is one thing, but during after-school hours we don’t.”
The extra doors and entryways on campus are a security concern. The windows don’t open properly and are a fire hazard. The ancient boiler is energy inefficient and expensive. The school is so overcrowded students only get seven to 10 minutes for lunch. The list goes on and on.
Magone is sick of the safety and capacity problems at the current Lolo school. Along with the school board and some parents, he is leading the charge to build a new K-4 school on a 20-acre plot in east Lolo. He wants half of the students to move to the new building while the rest, grades five through eight, remain on the old campus.
To accomplish the goal, the school district is trying to pass a revised $10.5 million school bond. A mail-in ballot arrived at Lolo homes on Feb. 20. This is the district’s second attempt to get a bond passed after its first campaign failed by a 43-vote margin in October.
“People say, ‘Well, can’t you just do some things to fix this building?’ But the approximate cost to take care of the ADA accessibility and the boiler and all those things is a million and a half dollars,” says Magone. “Okay, that is less than building a new school but the bigger picture is that ... you are just trying to fix an old building. You haven’t increased your capacity for students. You haven’t solved the problem.”
The bond has caused friction in Lolo. Drive down Highway 93 and on one side of the road you will see white signs in support of the proposal. Across the way, red placards on wooden legs tell residents to “VOTE NO.” Leading the opposition is Frank Miller, a local businessman who owns KT’s Hayloft Saloon and Deli and at least 10 other properties near the school. He helped defeat the bond campaign in October.
The Miller family’s local holdings are worth more than $4 million, according to 2012 appraisals. Frank says his tax burden will be “tremendous” if the school bond passes. Though taxes concern him, he says he opposes the bond primarily because he disagrees with the school district’s plan.
“We only want one school, we want a conventional school,” says Miller, whose daughter once attended the Lolo school. “We can’t afford two schools. There will be duplication of services.”
Miller explains his position while standing in the headquarters of his business operation, where he and his staff produce signs and fliers to drum up opposition to the project. He is using every conceivable argument to defeat the bond.
A recent flier he mailed to residents contains a list of reasons why people should vote no: Competitive bidding was not used to select contractors, it claims. Services will be duplicated at the new school and the project design is too complex, it declares in loud blue letters. Miller is also telling his tenants that their rents will go up if the bond issue passes. He says he would only support a school bond if it financed a single K-8 school that accommodated all 602 of the district’s students—even if that bond was more expensive for taxpayers.
“We are not fighting education,” Miller says. “I am willing to pay a higher tax base for a conventional school.”
Superintendent Magone disputes Miller’s claims and disapproves of his methods. He says that the Lolo School District would be interested in building an entire K-8 facility at the new location if it could. Lolo’s bonding capacity, however, is less than $11 million and the school district cannot raise enough money for a larger project. He says the move to the new site has to happen in increments and with community support or it won’t happen at all.
“Part of his information is absolutely false. He says it was not competitively bid, it was, the whole process has been competitive,” says Magone, adding that the school district repeatedly invited Miller to participate in the planning process and he consistently declined the offer. “I am not sure why he is putting false information out on the table but he is. If it is because he is opposed to a tax increase, then okay, great, that is a solid reason to be opposed to it. But to be putting incorrect and misleading information out there and saying this is the reason you shouldn’t pass it, to me that is unethical.”
Magone is optimistic the bond will pass. Miller says it will fail. Lolo voters have until March 12 to make their decision and mail back their ballots.