The question posed by the Boise School District in an online survey seems simple enough: Should Highlands Elementary School be remodeled, or should it be torn down and rebuilt?
But nothing is simple when it comes to growth and change, especially when the Treasure Valley is in the middle of a population boom. Yes, Highlands is cramped and outdated. But it’s also a distinctive, midcentury modern structure in a region fighting over the fate of local landmarks.
The result is a struggle over the angular brick building on North Bogus Basin Road. Neighbors sling the occasional insult on social media. The parent-teacher organization posts up against preservationists. Esthetics and safety duke it out.
And as the spat heated up this winter, yet another school shooting — 17 dead on Valentine’s Day in Florida — served as a reminder of modern architecture’s grim responsibility. Schools are built to keep students in and intruders out. Highlands is no exception.
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“I think there should be a rebuild,” said one passionate mother, as she waited for her two children on a chilly Monday afternoon. It would “make the most sense over a number of concerns — education for the students, a better teaching environment and safety.”
She declined to give her name, saying she was nervous about being a public face in the dispute at a time of heightened safety concerns.
Dan Jones, who was picking up his 7-year-old daughter, Aniella, was not as shy. He bought a home in the neighborhood, he said, because Highlands reminded him of his own elementary school. Put him down in the remodel column.
“I’m not fond of new school designs,” he said, as parents drove up, kids thronged, and Aniella scampered around in her pink ski overalls. “This school fits the identity of the neighborhood.”
Too many students for the building
Highlands Elementary School, home of the Huskies, was built in 1961 to reflect the architecture of its graceful, upscale neighborhood at the edge of the Boise Foothills. The split-level school’s roof line is low and sloping, and so is the entire campus. There are broad windows and exposed beams, brickwork without and colorful tile work within.
Southeast of the original building is a cluster of creamy yellow portable classrooms that house the growing student body. As of Feb. 7, the school had 315 students, up from 217 in 1985. The combined gymnasium and cafeteria is variously known as the the “gymacafetorium” and the “cafegymatorium.” Neither is a compliment.
Short flights of stairs that link the school’s three levels make the building difficult for people with disabilities to navigate. The parking lot and drop-off area are woefully inadequate to serve the burgeoning staff and student body. The plumbing, heating and cooling systems are all dodgy. Hallways double as storage spaces.
A 2016 audit ranked Highlands as the second-worst elementary-school building in the Boise School District based on usage, condition and educational adequacy, said district spokesman Dan Hollar.
The district’s successful 2017 school-bond ballot measure will cover the estimated $9.68 million cost of remodeling or rebuilding. Highlands is one of 22 capital projects included in the $172.5 million measure.
First a pro-rebuilding letter, then a pro-preservation one
Not long after a Feb. 5 community meeting to describe the building options, PTO officials mailed out an urgent letter endorsing the idea of tearing down Highlands and building a new school from the ground up. They urged fellow members to make their voices known.
“PTO officers believe a rebuild of the school vs. a remodel is the best choice for our children, our teachers, and all the staff at Highlands,” they wrote. “Preservation Idaho is a very vocal and organized group and advocating for a remodel of the school to preserve the Mid-Century Modern style. Plans are already under way so time is of the essence to act now and ensure your voice is heard.”
About a week later, a competing letter was sent home with every Highlands student. It was approved by the district and signed by Preservation Idaho and another preservation group, two architects and “Your Historic Highlands Neighbors.” It encouraged “the residents of the Highlands neighborhood to seriously consider the cultural impact that demolishing this cherished school building will have on the community.”
It called schools “the beating hearts of a neighborhood” and warned that “there is no replacement for the icons of our shared history, and too many of them are already erased and lost to the landfill.”
Paula Benson, president of the Preservation Idaho board, called Highlands “one of the best examples, if not the best, of midcentury school architecture in Boise, period.” Architectural “diversity,” she said, “having something from each era in the community,” is important.
‘The building has good bones’
“All across the U.S. and the world, people remodel historical schools for safety and other necessary amenities all the time,” Benson said in an interview. “A remodeled school won’t be any less of a school.”
Zach Hill is an architect, a Highlands father and a member of the amorphous group of “Your Historic Highlands Neighbors.” He said he understands the lure of a brand-new building, but he also waves a big red flag. The new building “is completely undefined. All we know is that it will have more square footage and better features.”
“That’s great, but what will it look like?” he asked. “The existing building has really good bones. The remodeling can be done. … A remodel can be safe.”
PTO President Dawn Blancaflor said she appreciates architecture and values historic preservation. But she was moved to oppose the remodel option by the community meeting with the architect and contractor chosen by the district to work on Highlands.
The architect, Don Hutchison, president of Hutchison Smith Architects of Boise, told parents that “we think either option is very viable. Either one will get the community what they need.”
Contractor: Remodeling would be disruptive
But the contractor, Trey Crookston, president of CM Co. in Boise, said “the remodel solution will be pretty disruptive to this facility. Not as much can be saved as what maybe we thought originally.”
Says Blancaflor: “Only part of the beams can be saved. That’s not worth it to me.”
Blancaflor would like a brand new school with midcentury modern flair that incorporates some elements from the original. She believes that an early version of the rebuilt school’s design would be more secure, because it would have a central area where staff members could stand and look down all corridors at once.
“I know security is a big issue for everyone,” she said. “When you have a remodel, you have to work with what you have. But when you start over, you can build what you think is the best and most safe for our students.”
Opinion is mixed — and somewhat testy — on the Next Door social network for the Highlands neighborhood. Residents have posted long and passionate explanations for both options, arguing for beauty, for history, for safety, for sustainability.
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“Midcentury architecture has aged into historical significance and Boise remains a top spot for affordable midcentury homes,” wrote one woman. “I don’t want a school that looks like every other generic school in new developments.” And the new corridor layout, she said, “I personally don’t think … is the safest option.”
Another parent, who was as yet undecided, wrote: “… please remember that over anything else, this is a school, [whose] No. 1 goal is to provide the best space for children to learn while, unfortunately, having to also keep them safe.”
Which prompted the tetchy response: “Let’s not turn this into a discussion of parental paranoia. Please.”
And the parent’s tetchier reply: “I don’t appreciate how condescending that was. I expect an apology.”
And the responder’s sort-of apology: “It wasn’t intended to be snarky. I’m sorry you took it that way.”
The district shut down its survey at 9 p.m. Wednesday. Results will be announced in late March, said Hollar, the district spokesman. The district will decide whether to remodel or rebuild in April; the survey is just one consideration. The project will break ground in June 2019.
Either way, students will be bused to a temporary location for an entire school year. Either way, someone will be unhappy. But either way, Hollar said, the children will be well-served.
At least, said Jennifer Mauk, who has a sixth-grader and a second-grader at Highlands, “everybody’s voices will be heard.”
“It’s going to be a long time before this is over,” said the PTO’s Blancaflor. Highlands is “a tight and very vocal and active community,” and she hopes “people can stay engaged but in a polite and respectful way.”
Because, she said, “I am tired of the bickering. I hope it goes away.”