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Boundary school levy back on ballot

BONNERS FERRY – School sports and three rural elementaries in Boundary County received a temporary reprieve Tuesday evening when trustees decided to rerun a levy voters rejected last month.

Before that March vote, trustees had said the community would not get another chance if the levy failed. Tuesday’s reversal came on a 3-2 vote.

“We better get it damn well right this time,” said Boundary County School District Trustee Tim Foust.

Trustees, who had already decided to reduce the school week to four days as a cost-savings measure, have been struggling to slash $1 million from the school district’s budget since voters rejected the $799,700 maintenance and operations levy. The levy was about $185,000 less than the one expiring this spring – a levy which passed on a second attempt and only after the district reduced its request.

The March 29 levy election followed the closure of the county’s largest private employer, CEDU private schools. Some blame the narrow failure of the levy on bad timing, along with last-minute negative campaigning by the Boundary County Property Owners Association, an anti-tax group.

Trustee John Lindberg on Tuesday criticized levy opponents for angry comments about the board in the wake of the levy failure. He said he and other board members have been called “socialists” and told they were “ignorant” and “immoral.”

Lindberg, of Naples, was critical of the change to a four-day school week, which trustees approved last week and reaffirmed – without Lindberg’s support – Tuesday. He said Boundary County commissioners are planning to increase their juvenile detention budget by $50,000 if students have a permanent three-day weekend.

But Brenda Walter, the district’s curriculum director, said staff members had contacted other districts that had gone to a shorter school week, including Challis and Orofino districts in Idaho.

“They said there was no increase in crimes or vandalism or anything,” she said. In fact, she said, those districts indicated that student attendance improved and teacher absences decreased with a shortened school week.

The district estimated the move to a four-day week would save just over $100,000, but Wilson said other savings could be realized through the increase in daily attendance, which helps determine how much funding a district receives from the state.

At Tuesday’s packed school board meeting, Superintendent Don Bartling asked trustees to reconsider the levy and, instead of asking voters to approve a one-year levy, double it to two years.

Emotions ran high at the meeting, with board members arguing over how to handle the reprisal of the levy.

Board Chairwoman Tina Wilson said she felt that the board needed to have a firm proposal for cuts that would be made if the levy fails again. She wanted the board to decide that matter Tuesday.

But Foust vehemently disagreed, saying the district needs firm and final numbers before putting another levy before the voters. He suggested Bartling and school administrators come up with final recommendations.

Foust said if the levy fails again, he wants the board to be able to meet the following morning and approve the cuts.

Jim Adamson, a teacher from Naples Elementary, said he was concerned that “threatening to close the outlying schools” has too often been a ploy used to garner voter support. He questioned the effectiveness of leaving it up to administrators to develop a list of recommended cuts in case the levy fails.

Adamson said he didn’t think administrators would look at cuts to administration.

Bartling said he plans to meet with the district’s administrative team today to discuss a proposal. The board will consider the administration’s proposal at a meeting scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Monday in the high school gymnasium.

Foust criticized Adamson’s suggestion that the “decision-making circle be widened.” Bartling “is the CEO of the district,” Foust said.

Robert Del Grosso, a vocal critic of the levy effort, said the district is making a serious mistake by breaking its promise to voters, and by adding another year of the levy.

He said voters would be more likely to approve a lower levy for one year’s time.

“The board would have demonstrated to the community they’re making every effort to make cuts,” Del Grosso said.