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District Pushes No-Frills Levy Boundary County Schools Face Cuts In Already Lean Budget

Mon., March 23, 1998

Without a few more dollars from taxpayers, the Boundary County School District will have to slice up its already lean budget.

Trustees can’t even muster enough cash now to maintain the status quo in this rural district of 1,650 students.

To avoid slashing programs and personnel, the district wants voters to pass a two-year, $980,000 maintenance and operations levy Tuesday.

The levy includes no extras or frills. It provides the basics, maybe even less, for students, said Superintendent Reid Straabe. The district’s annual budget is $7.5 million.

“This supplemental levy really is not supplementing anything, but is merely maintaining programs, schools, personnel and curriculum the district presently offers,” Straabe said. “This is for things we need or we wouldn’t be asking for it. Without it, there will have to be some cuts.”

If the levy fails, residents could see an outlying school close, double-shifting of students, at least two teachers laid off and old textbooks not replaced.

“When you are looking at knocking close to $500,000 out of our budget it’s going to have a big impact on kids. It will affect everyone in the district if we don’t get it (the levy),” said school board chairman Leonard Kucera.

The district already has enough problems without having to try to maintain current offerings. One elementary, Valley View, is overcrowded. The junior high is made up of modular classrooms with wooden walkways outside so students aren’t tramping through mud between periods. Lunch is delivered to the school because it has no kitchen.

The school also lacks lockers, and the main building has a gym that can hold only 49 people at a time because of safety concerns. The maintenance and operations levy will not address any problems with the school buildings.

“The levy is essential to maintain what we’ve got,” Straabe said. A bond levy may be pitched to residents later this fall to fix schools and possibly build a new one.

The district will have time to run the levy again before the next school year if it does fail. But a committee of residents has suggested that not be an option. Residents need to understand that the levy is for basic needs, and that without taxpayer help, programs will get cut, said Diane Wakkinen, a member of Citizens for Quality Education.

“We likened it to disciplining a child. If you keep threatening and never follow through, they never learn,” she said. “I don’t like that we have to do this every year, but the fact is we have to. We are trying to do the best with the way things are.”

The levy will eliminate the district’s pay-to-play program. It was instituted two years ago when residents voted down a levy three times.

Students who want to participate in any sports program, choir or other extra-curricular activity now must pay $100.

But many parents have complained about the pay-to-play program, Straabe said, and it has caused a decline in the number of students participating in extra-curricular activities.Many residents in this timber-dependent town can’t afford the fee. Students also have been forced to choose between paying to play sports or take the driver’s education program.

And not being able to get involved in extra-curricular programs has lessened some students’ chances at scholarships.

“That affects the ability of kids to get out of town and get a better education after high school,” Wakkinen said. “For a lot of kids that may be their only option to get into college.”

Historically the district has needed money beyond what the state provides, as does nearly every district in Idaho. But residents here haven’t been eager to raise their own taxes.

To make matters worse, a group that touts itself as a watchdog for taxpayers has opposed every levy in the county the past few years.

The group uses its cash to do mass mailings and send out fliers just before elections. The anti-tax campaign in 1996 helped defeat a school levy three times.

This year’s proposed levy will cost the average homeowner about $36 a year. The money will be used as follows:

$91,500 - Will keep all school sites open and the same number of teachers and staff employed at the schools.

$103,000 - Will keep the district on its textbook replacement cycle to keep books from becoming outdated.

$131,000 - Will eliminate the pay-to-play program.

$51,500 - Will retain a counselor at the high school.

$58,000 - Will retain one administrative position.

$55,000 - Will retain the district technology program and instructor.

Because of declining enrollment, the district expects to have to cut two staff positions next year even if the levy passes. Hopefully that can be done by having teachers retire rather than being laid off, Kucera said.

It’s already stressful for staff who have their jobs dependent on voters approving enough levy money.

“It’s not pleasant having to put people under that pressure,” he said, adding he was optimistic the levy will pass. It needs only a simple majority to be approved.

Straabe wants a record turnout to bolster a committee now touring schools to see if a bond is needed to repair and replace buildings.

“We need this to pass by a substantial margin so it sends a positive message to those looking at school construction,” he said. “I am looking for something encouraging from this vote.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color)

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: TIME TO VOTE The polls are open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Residents can vote at any school site in Boundary County and can register to vote at the polls.

This sidebar appeared with the story: TIME TO VOTE The polls are open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Residents can vote at any school site in Boundary County and can register to vote at the polls.

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