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Opinion: Returning Highland Home

Superintendent Dr Doug Howell

Choices. Choices.

Whenever it’s time for a treat, what do you reach for — a salty snack or a sweet one? I consider myself somewhere in the middle, but most often, I choose chips.

In the 1980s, I was introduced to a new Doritos flavor, Sour Cream and Onion, which quickly became a favorite. Nearly every day during my break between second and third periods, I would run to the vending machine near the counselor’s office at Highland High School with my 50 cents. The race was on as my friends and I would buy sodas and snacks and then grab a spot on one of the radiator units in “C” building.
The “C” halls held the science classrooms, and it was in those hallways that my interest in science was ignited. Later, of course, I would land my first teaching position at Alameda Junior High teaching Life Science.
When I think about my high school years, a flood of memories comes back like they just happened yesterday. I recall cheering a season of boys’ basketball that culminated in a state championship; watching a future NFL star, Merril Hoge, carry a football into the end zone at Holt Arena; and standing in Senior Hall, “D” building, a week before graduation wondering what challenges and opportunities would my future hold?
Fast forward a few years or so, and after the fire hit, I stood in those same hallways asking myself similar questions. As we seek to repair the damage at Highland, the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District 25 Board of Trustees will invite community stakeholders to participate in sharing ideas and, ultimately,
make a decision on where we go from here. Far more important than making a treat selection, the task before us warrants exploring more than one option. In the past few weeks, people have already begun to share ideas for consideration. 

Using the replacement funds from insurance, do we rebuild Highland using its original footprint? Should we consider a redesign and rebuild adding more classrooms and community spaces such as a larger auditorium and gym? Is a new high school a possibility using replacement funds for a down payment while repurposing the existing structure into a large elementary or middle school?

Every crisis opens doors to both challenges and opportunities. There are four stages of a crisis: pre-crisis (preparedness); crisis (acute phase); response (chronic phase) and resolution (post-crisis). The Highland crisis is currently bridging two phases: (1) the acute phase to prioritize providing a safe educational environment for Highland learners and staff with the partial loss of school facilities and (2) the response phase to continue the restoration of the school while also making reasonable, fiscally responsible, timely and forward-thinking plans for Highland High School’s future. Working toward the resolution phase will ultimately be a two- to four-year process. Feelings of fear, anxiety, confusion, frustration, and impatience may accompany any of these stages.

First and foremost, we must all prioritize the continuation of in person instruction and activities during both the decision-making and the building process. This phase of planning includes the goal of returning the Highland community back to their home on the hill for the 2023-2024 school year. For that reason, the district is in the process of completing projects that will expedite resuming classes and in person learning at Highland in the immediate future. For example, we have already taken steps to replace the small gym floor to allow for PE and activity spaces since acquiring alternate large gym spaces can be challenging in our community. Together with Highland’s administration, we have taken preliminary steps to secure large spaces for band, orchestra, choir, weights, dance, cheer, athletics, and other programs currently displaced by the fire, either through rentals or facility/space donations throughout the community.

As we collect data and review options, there are many factors to keep in mind for a rebuild or new build. How many learners should we plan to accommodate? Do we build new or rebuild? What are the costs associated with each option? How will inflationary costs impact the project? Is there state financial support potentially available? Will local property owners support a possible bond request? What is the current bond market and fees associated with bonding? How have neighboring school districts fared in their results for recent bond and levy elections? Is there acreage available to accommodate a new high school for a reasonable price? 

As these few elements demonstrate, this phase of planning and processing information is very complicated. Any of the logistical and financial variables above will be dependent upon the amount the district receives from insurance in replacement value for Highland, which may not be confirmed for another month or so. Throw in the crisis component of currently displacing learners at two PCSD 25 high schools, and addressing these  challenges becomes even more layered and nuanced.

As we enter into each phase of this process, our first priority will be to continue addressing the most immediate needs of our learners and our staff. We ask that the community moves forward with the same spirit of patience, goodwill, and grace extended in the immediate aftermath of the event. Once we craft a solid framework for moving forward, we will offer opportunities for public input. We invite community members to stay informed, livestream or attend PCSD 25 Board meetings, and offer suggestions as we move to evaluate the many choices and challenges before us.

Dr. Douglas Howell is the Superintendent of the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District 25. He was born and raised in Pocatello. He attended Idaho State  University and graduated in 1989 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Secondary Education with a double major in Health Education and Physical Education and a minor in Science. He completed an Education Administration certificate from ISU, in 2001, and earned a Doctorate of Education in Educational Leadership
from ISU in 2006. In a career that spans thirty years, Dr. Howell has held various roles within PCSD 25, including teaching and administration. He has been Superintendent since 2016.

Published May 18, 2023 Updated May 19, 2023 Idaho State Journal

  • Fire
  • Highland