COEUR d'ALENE - An informal, open discussion session, hosted Wednesday by Coeur d'Alene School District trustees in an effort to gauge public opinion about a March supplemental levy election they are planning, attracted citizens and educators who urged the board to refrain from reducing the amount of the existing $12.9 million two-year levy.
The so-called "community chat," held at Ramsey Magnet School of Science was attended by about 50 people, including several school bus drivers who are concerned the district may be moving toward privatizing its transportation service.
"We need to support the quality of education, whatever the cost is," said Geoff Emry, a Coeur d'Alene physician and parent of children attending district schools.
Facing a $3 million budget shortfall for the 2013-14 school year, due to an earlier loss of one-time federal stimulus funding, and the need to set the supplemental levy amount, the trustees have been reviewing the district's entire operations budget for areas where there could be potential savings.
"The board's direction in this is to look for sustainable cuts," said board chair Tom Hamilton.
Educators who spoke during the meeting included present and former members of the Coeur d'Alene Education Association's leadership team. The CEA is the local arm of state teachers union.
Lake City High School teacher Derek Kohles, CEA vice president, asked the board members if they were going to lobby the state legislature to increase the level of state support for schools.
"The problem really rests with the state which does not adequately fund us," Kohles said.
Hamilton said he knows that's an issue, but said the board has to deal with the existing funding situation, the "reality." He encouraged everyone to lobby their lawmakers. He said he discusses increasing state funding for schools with legislators whenever he has the opportunity.
"If that's the reality then cutting our levy is going to hurt our programs," Kohles said.
Hamilton said they cannot risk pushing taxpayer tolerance to the point that the supplemental levy fails, saying it would be catastrophic to the district. Kohles agreed.
Supplemental maintenance and operations levy dollars represent 23 percent of the school district's $60.2 million general fund budget.
Paula Marano, former CEA president, said the school district's low supplemental levy rate, one of the lowest in the state, is indicative that the levy should not be reduced.
"What we didn't want to do was arrive at a number without having this conversation," Hamilton said.
Teacher Kristi Milan, the current CEA president, said she didn't understand why they would want to cut the levy at all, and cautioned that "sustainable cuts" would result in a reduction of services to children. She said the district's elimination of 40 teaching positions over the last few years has already affected learning because classrooms are more crowded.
Lake City High School music teacher Tim Sanford said his classroom budget has been shrunk from $3,000 to $700 and much of his time must now be spent holding fundraisers for items he needs to teach, rather than teaching.
He said a $1 million reduction in the levy amount may save individual taxpayers about $30 per year, "but it's devastating in the classroom."
Hamilton said, during the meeting, that the board asked district administration to analyze the transportation department, now made up of a fleet of 66 buses owned by the district and operated by drivers who are district employees, to look for potential cost-savings. It is one of several budget areas being reviewed.
Privatization of the busing service could be done several ways, the most extreme being the sale of the buses and the hiring of a private firm to hire and manage the drivers.
Wendell Wardell, the district's chief operations officer, said he will complete his transportation analysis by Monday, when he will present his findings to the board, when they meet for a budget workshop at 5 p.m.
Matt Melton, a 4-year bus driver who lives in Hayden, cautioned that privatization will change the nature of the district's busing operation.
He said he drives 130 kids each day and knows each of their names, where they live and the kinds of cars their parents drive. He said the bus driving team is full of drivers like himself.
"You can't replace caring bus drivers," Melton said. "You can't put a price on a kid's life."
Melton also said there are many longtime, older drivers who need the benefits they receive.
Hamilton said he and the rest of the board shared the same concerns Melton brought up. He said if they were to move toward privatization, they would want district's current drivers to get the first rights to the driving jobs.
"We said, 'Look at it,'" Hamilton said. "We didn't say do it."