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New schools

As student numbers continue to grow across the Magic Valley — a trend over several years, largely because news businesses moved into the area — more new schools opened this year.

South Hills Middle School in Twin Falls opened its doors in August.

South Hills, on Harrison Street South, is the final of three new Twin Falls schools paid for using a nearly $74 million bond voters approved in 2014. The project cost about $26 million.

“It’s a beautiful facility, and we’re excited to fill the halls with kids,” Ryan Bowman, director of operations for the Twin Falls School District, told the Times-News this summer.

South Hills was the first new middle school to open in Twin Falls since 1979.

In Kimberly, construction is underway on a new elementary school. It will be the city’s second elementary school and will open to students in fall 2018.

Construction of the 50,000-square-foot school — with a $10.7 million price tag — has been underway since spring.

Once the new school opens, remodeling will begin on the existing elementary school.

This year, the Shoshone School District tried twice, in August and November, to pass a $6 million bond for facility projects. The majority of voters said “yes” each time, but it wasn’t enough to clear the required two-thirds supermajority.

Both times, the bond was slated to pay for remodeling the existing school, constructing a new multipurpose building, a new vocational building and small building with a couple of alternative-school classrooms.

Buhl School District created a new alternative high school, Wakapa Academy, in September. It’s using existing space at the Boys & Girls Club in Buhl.

Elsewhere across the Magic Valley, a handful of school districts — including Jerome and Filer — are also weighing future building needs to cope with growing enrollment.

Carey school bus crash

In April, a school bus rolled while carrying 39 Carey Junior High School students to a track meet in Gooding.

The bus driver — Richard Mecham, 67, of Carey — was driving west on U.S. 26 when he drove off the right shoulder of the road, overcorrected and rolled the bus west of Richfield.

A collision report from Idaho State Police says Mecham was asleep, drowsy or fatigued while operating the school bus.

About a dozen students were hospitalized. All were released by the following afternoon.

In May, Blaine County School District transportation director Rex Squires resigned after he was presented with findings from an investigation into the bus crash and the department’s overall operations.

Mecham pleaded guilty to inattentive driving. In October, he was sentenced to a year of unsupervised probation and a $300 fine, the Associated Press reported. His 90-day jail time was suspended.

He’s no longer employed by the Blaine County School District.

Retirements and new faces

This year brought shakeups in the school administration, largely due to retirements.

After 14 years as Twin Falls School District Superintendent, Wiley Dobbs retired Sept. 1. It meant a major transition for south-central Idaho’s largest school district, with more than 9,400 students and 16 schools.

Dobbs, a 1976 Twin Falls High School alumnus, started his career as a teacher in 1983 and became superintendent of his hometown district in July 2003.

In April, Brady Dickinson was named his successor. He started on the job July 1. Dickinson, who was previously director of operations and educational technology for the school district, has worked for the district for more than 22 years.

Across south-central Idaho, May school board elections also brought new faces to the table. In Twin Falls, newcomer Todd Hubbard was elected to a four-year term. The civil engineer represents northwest Twin Falls.

He replaced Liyah Babayan, who was appointed to the board in August 2014 to fill a vacancy. She ran as a write-in candidate.

Also in Twin Falls, CSI public information officer Doug Maughan retired Sept. 1 after more than 20 years with the college.

Two school district superintendents — Cassia County’s Gaylen Smyer and Wendell’s Greg Lowe — announced they’ll retire at the end of this school year. A search is underway for new superintendents.

In Dietrich, Stefanie Shaw took over in July as superintendent and elementary school principal under a two-year contract. She replaced Ben Hardcastle, who left the position.

Hardcastle and the Dietrich School District had come under fire for an October 2015 attack in a Dietrich football locker room, where white players were accused of targeting a black, mentally disabled teammate.

Snow days

Last winter, extreme weather led to challenges for Magic Valley schools, including leaky roofs, hazardous road conditions and uncertain schedules.

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Many schools — including in Twin Falls, Jerome, Cassia County and Minidoka County — were closed for about 10 days last winter.

By mid-March, the Minidoka County School District had logged 12 days of school closures due to severe weather and flooding. Acequia Elementary School in Rupert had been closed for 15 days and dealt with flooding on surrounding roads.

Some schools, including Jerome, lengthened school days or added back days to make for lost time. But other districts, such as Twin Falls, didn’t.

The weather conditions also led to facility issues.

In Hansen, schools were closed for a couple of days in January due a problem with the high school’s fire suppression system. Filer High School had a broken water pipe.

About half of the Twin Falls School District’s campuses experienced minor roof leaks.

School controversies and crime

In February, Jerome parents and community members were upset over a 10-question Adverse Childhood Experience survey children were given at Heritage Academy. Some considered legal action.

They said the questions — covering topics such as anal and oral sex, sexual abuse and witnessing domestic violence — were inappropriate for children.

But administrators say the survey was useful and found about 70 percent of Heritage Academy students scored a three or higher — meaning they’ve experienced at least three stressful life situations.

At Twin Falls High School, an April school-spirit activity left some students feeling marginalized and sparked harassment of transgender students. Some students were so upset they delayed returning to school.

In past years, the “boys versus girls” day included friendly competitions. In response to student concerns, student leaders changed it to “blue versus pink” in an effort to be more inclusive.

But a group of students — including some who are transgender — said they felt targeted after wearing purple shirts to school instead of pink or blue. And messages painted on the school rock raised bigger issues about gender and student acceptance.

At the College of Southern Idaho, a man stole five replicas of Clovis Point artifacts in April from the Herrett Center museum. He broke into a display case and removed the replicas, which are worth a total of about $15,000.

In August, 53-year-old Bryan Richardson of Jerome was charged in connection with the incident.

He pleaded guilty to felony grand theft, but a burglary charge was dismissed, according to online court records. He was sentenced in September to three to nine years in prison, with credit for 144 days served, and to pay $1,245.50 in fees.

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