City Council grants appeal for SD25 Pocatello High Remodel

School District 25 Superintendent Doug Howell, right, standing at the lectern, makes the district’s case at Thursday night’s Pocatello City Council meeting at City Hall that the second phase of the Pocatello High School renovation project should be allowed to move forward.

POCATELLO — The group leading an effort to recall several Bannock County officials has now set its sights on Pocatello’s leadership after an often tense Thursday evening City Council meeting at City Hall.

Two big issues were on the meeting’s agenda — the council’s decision on the second phase of the Pocatello High School remodeling project and the public hearing on the city’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year.

The proposed spending plan includes annual pay raises of nearly 50 percent for all six council members and a 13 percent annual pay hike for Mayor Brian Blad.

The council’s final decision on the budget will come later this month, but the council did on Thursday night unanimously approve the renovations proposed for Pocatello High School.

The high school discussion dominated the meeting, at which Pocatello resident Claudia Ortega, the leader of the Pocatello/Bannock Homeowners’ Alliance group aimed at recalling the Bannock County Commission and the county assessor over this year’s badly botched countywide property reassessment, shouted that she now plans to recall city leaders as well. Ortega’s comments came after her allotted time of three minutes to speak during the budget hearing at Thursday’s meeting had ended and Blad interrupted her.

“I want to go on record saying we got no answers,” Ortega said after Blad threatened to have her removed from the meeting. “We got no answers from our city leadership. Recall them all.”

Ortega left City Hall after her exchange with the mayor but remained present in the parking lot where she gathered recall petition signatures from several people who attended Thursday’s meeting to see how the City Council would vote on the second phase of renovations to Pocatello High School.

It was standing room only when the City Council unanimously voted in favor of granting an appeal from Pocatello/Chubbuck School District 25, which had sought the council’s override of last month’s Pocatello Historic Preservation Commission’s decision to reject the second phase of the Pocatello High School project.

By siding with School District 25 rather than the city’s own Historic Preservation Commission, the City Council gave the district the green light to now move forward with the second phase of the Pocatello High School renovations, including the controversial addition of large glass panels to the historic school.

The glass panels are a necessary element of the renovations because they are removable in the event the city needs to access large underground utility lines located underneath the glass-sided structure the district plans to build to connect Pocatello High School’s two buildings, according to Jacob Rivard, an architect with the district’s architectural firm for the project, the Boise-based Hummel Architects.

The district filed its appeal after the Pocatello Historic Preservation Commission last month denied a certificate of appropriateness for the project because the commission felt the planned renovations would impact the historic school’s architecture.

The Historic Preservation Commission had previously approved the first phase of the Pocatello High School project, which began in June and should be completed later this month. That phase involves remodeling the school’s main entrance.

The second phase involves the addition of the structure connecting the school’s two buildings as well as the construction of a large commons area and additional classroom space. Work on the second phase is expected to start and be completed next summer.

The School District has set aside $7.5 million to pay for the entire project, including both phases, though recent changes to the design of the second phase could increase the total cost of the project to nearly $10 million, according to School District documents obtained by the Idaho State Journal.

The City Council’s decision to override the Historic Preservation Commission’s rejection of the district’s Pocatello High project came after less than 15 minutes of discussion among council members.

School District officials and the project’s architects were the only ones allowed to address the City Council about the controversial project at Thursday’s meeting. Their comments essentially mirrored what they told the Historic Preservation Commission during its July 3 meeting, at which the commission rejected the project’s second phase.

After the council decided to give the Pocatello High renovations its stamp of approval, Ortega in an interview with the Journal echoed the sentiments of the project’s critics that Pocatello’s leaders did not welcome public comment regarding the project.

“We need a regime change in this town,” Ortega said. “These people are out of control. They welcome no public input whatsoever. That’s their mission, that’s how they do everything. They don’t want public input. They want to rule and they want their subjects to bow down.”

The leader of a Facebook group titled Save Pocatello High School, Steven McCurdy, who graduated from the school in 1978 and now lives in Utah, was also present for Thursday’s council meeting. McCurdy and the members of his group have led the opposition to the planned renovations of the school because of their belief that the changes are not in agreement with the school’s historic architecture.

And as the Pocatello High School renovation project continued to develop, McCurdy became critical of the district’s process, claiming it was secretive, rushed and purposely undertaken with minimal public feedback.

McCurdy distributed signs at City Hall before Thursday’s meeting started that called on the City Council to deny the district’s appeal.

”I’m disappointed, obviously, and I think council members based their decision on something other than what they should have,” McCurdy said. “They basically threw the Historic Preservation Commission under the bus. I think we affected the trajectory of the overall project, but instead of just bypassing the historic commission’s decision, I thought (the City Council) should have sent it back to (the commission) to let the district readdress the concerns the commission had initially.”

McCurdy continued, “I wished (the City Council) would have allowed a member of the Historic Preservation Commission to explain what issues they had when they voted against (the project), but once again, one side gets to be represented and the other side doesn’t.”

At Thursday’s meeting Doug Howell, School District 25’s superintendent, provided the City Council with the district’s reasons for the Pocatello High School renovations, which included the need to improve student safety, the need for state-of-the-art classroom space and the need to provide wheelchair accessibility throughout 90 percent of the school’s campus.

Councilwoman Linda Leeuwrik was the most vocal during Thursday’s meeting, citing her background in architecture and referencing the national historic preservation guidelines the Historic Preservation Commission used in its rejection of the project’s second phase.

“We are supposed to consider the criteria from our own preservation commission as well as our own municipal code and the Secretary of Interior and whether this project meets that criteria,” Leeuwrik said. “One of the complications with that is that is somewhat subjective and people have different opinions.”

Leeuwrik said one particular criteria that involves changes to historic buildings being different but complementary was something she felt the School District and Hummel Architects accomplished. That’s why she said she voted in favor of the appeal.

When asked at Thursday’s meeting about the council’s decision to give the Pocatello High project the green light, School District spokeswoman Courtney Fisher provided the Journal with the following prepared written statement: “We want to take this opportunity to thank Mayor Blad and the City of Pocatello council members for recognizing with their vote that our first obligation as a school district — our ‘why’ — is to fulfill our educational promise to ALL learners in our community with equity and fairness. Our ‘why’ has framed every step of the process to consider the most crucial elements for Pocatello High School in meeting the instructional, academic and social needs of our learners.”

The statement continued, “We appreciate the community’s support and understanding of the vital importance to improve Pocatello High School. We also appreciate the City of Pocatello’s staff in the engineering and planning departments for the cooperative nature in which we have worked together. We are excited to move forward with the project.”

Reporter Shelbie Harris can be reached at 208-239-3525. Follow him on Twitter: @shelbietharris.