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Schools’ Margin Pencil-Thin Voted-Down Levies Leave Some Districts At Breaking Point

The Boundary County School District has about as much spare change as a street beggar. To survive it will close an elementary school and lay off 15 employees unless residents come up with more tax money.

In Post Falls, a growth spurt has stuffed schools with new students. Residents have nixed three bond levies for a new school, so students now will attend classes in double shifts for at least three years.

A Bonner County school board member is suing his own district and the state, saying dilapidated buildings and ailing programs make for an inadequate education. So many students now skip class - and miss being counted in the state’s attendance formula - that the district may be in debt by year’s end.

Parents, teachers and administrators say education is in serious trouble in parts of North Idaho. The main problem is money - there isn’t enough of it from the state or local taxpayers. Nowhere is the problem more acute than in Idaho’s two northernmost counties.

“Funding is a very frustrating issue,” said Bonner County Superintendent Max Harrell. “This is not like any other business where if you don’t have the money you cut back. We still have a clientele (students), but no money to pay for basic education.”

Students do without technology and new textbooks while class sizes grow. Building repairs are put off until schools fall apart. In Boundary County, students now must pay to play sports.

Struggling schools are a burden to the entire community, not just students and their parents. In some cases, people have turned down jobs in Sandpoint because of the poor school system. One couple is moving next year so their two kids don’t have to attend the middle school and high school in Sandpoint.

“We don’t pass levies here, we go through a superintendent every couple of years, and roofs are caving in on schools. Education is just not happening here,” said the woman. She did not want her name used, because her husband teaches in the district. “There is no stability here. It’s looking pretty grim.”

Parents in Boundary County have threatened to home-school kids, put them in private schools or move if the district closes down an elementary school and cuts programs.

Two elementary school gyms in the district are now closed because they are unsafe. The district’s junior high is a shoddy conglomeration of four portable buildings. The units were supposed to be temporary until voters approved money for a new school. The portables, dubbed the “albatross,” have been there five years.

“You cannot define that as a school in any way, shape or form,” said Boundary Superintendent Reide Straabe. “But the district can only do what the community allows it, and they have told us to live within our budget.”

With a $7 million budget the district can’t keep existing programs and staff. Its newest school, Bonners Ferry High, was built in 1972.

“We are not only not getting by, we can’t maintain what we do have,” Straabe said. “Over the years we have tried to make do and it’s finally caught up with us. This is not the way to educate kids.”

A state funding formula that pumps more money into southern Idaho districts than the Panhandle is part of the problem. About 30 districts have signed onto a lawsuit calling the formula unfair and unconstitutional.

Bill Osmunson, a trustee in Bonner County, filed his own lawsuit this month against the state and district for $14 million. The state, he says, isn’t providing funding for a thorough education.

“We are in critical condition and so are other districts. The only way to solve this thing is to go to a judge,” Osmunson said. “We are a good year and a half behind in what we are teaching students, our buildings are coming apart and we are not providing a proper education here.”

Three Panhandle districts - Sandpoint, Boundary County and Post Falls - have been stymied by voters who refuse to pass levies. Despite being overrun with new students, Post Falls voters have not mustered the needed 66 percent majority to pass a school bond issue. The latest request last fall failed, despite gaining 62.5 percent voter approval.

The problem is Idaho’s requirement for a supermajority, 66.6 percent, to pass a bond, said Post Falls Superintendent Dick Harris.

“In most states that would have been a win, but not in Idaho,” Harris said. “That’s tough because it means 37 percent of the community is controlling the rest of us.”

In Washington state, school bonds require a 60 percent majority. The state also antes up some matching funds for levies that pass. “That would make it more palatable for residents,” Harris said, but there is no such incentive in Idaho for residents to tax themselves.

Districts have failed to get Idaho lawmakers to lower the elusive supermajority requirement. Post Falls will try another bond levy next year. Even if it passes, students in 6th, 7th and 8th grade will be forced to double shift for three years. It will take that long to get the money and build a school.

“I don’t understand why people don’t fund education, I really don’t,” said Susan Sloyka, who has three children in Post Falls schools. “It only hurts the kids and I’m very concerned about where we are.”

All three of her children will be on different schedules next year, with one arriving home at 12:30 p.m. “It’s going to be real inconvenient and many kids will be at home alone in the morning or afternoon,” Sloyka said. “But parents aren’t whining and moaning…. We don’t have an attitude problem (toward schools) like there seems to be in Bonner County.”

Bonner County voters haven’t passed a major levy since 1987. The county ranks 100th out of 111 school districts in generating cash through local levies.

For some residents it’s a matter of not wanting to pay higher taxes, while others say the district has a credibility problem.

“People have confidence in the board and teachers, but lack any in the administration,” said Teresa Sanders. She has two kids in school and is a member of the Middle School Parent Teacher Organization.

The school district’s years of deficits, controversial personnel changes, high administrative salaries - and the recent roof collapses - have residents wary of handing over tax money, Sanders said.

“Most everyone I talk to is aware the education our kids get here is pretty substandard, but until the administration builds some trust I don’t think any levies will pass,” she said.

State Rep. John Campbell, R-Sandpoint, heard enough about problems in Bonner County schools to call for the State Department of Education to “examine” the district.

“With the information that has come to light and the depths of the problems within the school district, a full scale in-depth examination would be in order,” Campbell said. “We need this action as an effort to restore trust between voters and the administrative core. If we can turn the trust around the money will come.”

Superintendent Harrell sees no signs the district has squandered money. Trust may be a problem, he said, but the bigger issue is the state has underfunded education for years. Districts are now paying the price, dealing with dilapidated buildings that siphon money from kids in classrooms. One state-sponsored study showed Idaho needs about $700 million to update and build schools.

“This district has been in a deficit most of the last 10 years. We paid it off but are not promising we will be able to do that next year,” Harrell said. “That says to me there has not been a level of funding necessary to pay for basic education needs. We have serious problems and need some serious help.”

“It’s not comforting to know other districts are in the same situation,” added Superintendent Straabe. “It tells you this is a statewide issue and it all boils down to money. We have let things go in education and it’s time to pay the piper.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (1 Color)


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