By BETHANY BLITZ
On March 14, voters will say “yea” or “nay” to Coeur d’Alene School District’s requests for a $67.5 million commitment.
The district is seeking voter approval for a two-year supplemental levy at $16 million a year, and a $35.5 million bond. At the core of the requests is the district’s attempt to accommodate growth and alleviate overcrowding that already exists.
District officials sat down with The Press editorial board earlier this month and were asked to address the main concerns they hear from community members.
One of the most common complaints about levies and bonds comes from senior citizens who argue they don’t have any kids or grandkids benefitting from the schools and that they sometimes struggle financially.
Brian Wallace, the district’s director of finance and operations, said good schools are part of what makes communities vibrant and healthy. He added that current students will grow up and get jobs and pay into Social Security, which is a safety net a lot of senior citizens rely on.
“There’s a collectiveness in public education,” added Superintendent Matt Handelman. “No matter where you’ve lived, people paid taxes, and there were senior citizens paying taxes so you or your kids could go to school.”
School districts often get accused of running bond and levy elections in March so fewer voters will participate.
While it’s true fewer people participate in March elections compared to November elections, district officials say March elections better fit their budget cycle.
Money comes with tax collections, Wallace explained. If a levy or bond passes in March 2017, the district would see that money in June 2018, and can budget for it accordingly, he said.
School Board Trustee Dave Eubanks added that March elections tend to be less politically charged.
“If we ran it in November, it would be on the ballot with a lot of other things and we don’t want to get into a political battle,” he said. “I think a lot of people will put politics aside to do what’s best for our kids.”
What would happen if the levy or the bond doesn’t pass?
Superintendent Handelman said the district would manage if the bond fails to get the necessary 66.67 percent of votes needed to pass. But if the levy falters — it needs 50 percent approval, plus one vote — the district would have to cut a lot of programs and probably jobs, too.
“If we don’t get the bond, we could exist; we’re surviving this year,” he said. “But the need is now. If we closed all our portables, we’d need a whole new school just for that, and we’re growing.”
Wallace pointed out 22 percent of the district’s general fund is money that comes from levies. If that went away, he said, the board would be looking at making major cuts.
“Anything the state didn’t require,” he said of potential cuts. “We don’t want to do scare tactics, but we would have to go into crisis mode.”
If the levy doesn’t pass, Wallace said, the district would most likely look at deferring curricular adoptions, reduce transportation services, increase class size, no longer have student resource officers, defer technology purchases and no longer pay support personnel like crossing guards and nurses.
If the bond fails, less-than-ideal conditions will continue. For example, gym classes at Lake City High School will still spill into the hallways and the auxiliary gym, which is only big enough for a court, no sidelines or sports for spectators, because the one full-sized gym in the school has to be shared by four classes at once.
Right now, the high school’s auxiliary gym and weight room are situated behind the main gym’s bleachers on the second floor. When the bleachers need to be opened, they take up so much of the space in the weight room and auxiliary gym that both are unusable.
Two years ago, the school had to add a third lunch period because 800 students could not fit in the cafeteria. The move freed up space but requires more teachers to work the lunches. Each lunch period requires eight staff because the cafeteria is not closed off and flows freely into the hallways.
“I think this system is working really well, it’s just expensive,” said Deanne Clifford, Lake City High School’s principal. “The staff just embraced it because this is a staff that does what’s best for kids.”
Across town, Dalton Gardens Elementary School is also bursting at the seams.
Neither the band class nor the art class have their own classrooms and resort to using the gym and cafeteria, respectively.
“We are teaching in spaces not designed for those topics,” said Jim Gray, the school’s principal. “It’s just not as quality of an education.”
Gray said his school is at 136 percent of its capacity right now, and is adding a third fifth-grade class next year due to growth.
To fit the additional fifth-grade class, the school will have to ditch its computer lab. The school still has a traveling computer lab with Chromebooks.
Mattie Vodila, the art teacher at Dalton, said it’s not ideal teaching class in the cafeteria. Since there’s no sink for her to use, she has to bring buckets of water and rags to each class to clean up.
“You really have to plan your entire day out and be aware of what supplies you need and you have to completely clean everything up at the end of each class,” she said, noting the school’s lack of storage space means her art materials are stored in the girls’ bathroom on the other side of the school.
“If I had my own classroom, it would be wonderful. I could have things posted on the board and have more art around, more inspiring materials on the walls.”
If voters approve the bond, the school will get an art room and a music room, another multimedia room/library, and the existing library and computer room will be turned into classroom space.
“This wouldn’t just be a temporary fix, this would take care of what we really, really need and give us some breathing room,” Gray said.
Asked how he balances the needs and desires of taxpayers old and young, of adults without kids and of the students themselves, Handelman didn’t hesitate.
“Ultimately we are here to advocate for our kids and our schools,” he said.