Tuesday vote to decide fate of CdA school levy

Dozens of Coeur d’Alene School District programs and staff members – and some say the heart of the schools – depend on a multimillion dollar property tax levy up for a vote Tuesday.

If approved, the two-year levy would replace the expiring $14.6 million levy approved in 2005. A separate vote will decide an additional $3 million over the two years. If both amounts are approved, the tax rate would increase to $1.03 per $1,000 of property value from 85 cents. The district’s total tax rate would increase to $1.30 from $1.12.

Often called supplemental levies, the two-year tax measures pay for what state money doesn’t, including all-day kindergarten and reading programs, alternative schools like Bridge Academy, the program for high-performing students at the elementary schools, the International Baccalaureate diploma program at the high schools, electives and school resource officers.

“The state funding is at a very, very minimal level,” said district Superintendent Harry Amend. “The state pays about $5,000 a student. … This allows us to spend an additional $800 per student.”

About half of the state’s 114 school districts have supplemental levies, including Post Falls and West Bonner, which have votes on Tuesday.

With the failure of a building construction levy last year and a community survey that indicated voters wanted more insight into district operations, school board members decided to take a more cautious approach when asking for the $3 million increase.

“Our population is asking for that choice,” Assistant Superintendent Hazel Bauman said during the March 20 board meeting. After initially approving a ballot question that would ask for the full $17.6 million over two years, school board members voted to separate the amounts. Each requires a simple majority. If the first vote for $14.6 million fails, the $3 million addition cannot pass.

How much will it cost?

District officials are optimistic that voter feelings have changed since the $40 million construction levy failed last year. The Legislature’s shift of school funding from the property tax to an increased sales tax in August reduced property tax bills. Plus, the failed building construction levy was to replace one that expired in 2005, meaning there’s one less levy to pay for right now.

The growing tax base in Kootenai County also has helped keep the district’s levy rate low. According to numbers used by school districts in the region, the average levy rate is $3.08 per $1,000 in taxable property value after the homeowner’s exemption is applied.

Any increase in the tax base would reduce the amount of the increase if the levy passes.

The district focuses on the low tax rate when making the pitch for a “yes” vote. Though the total amount of the levy seems high compared to other districts, what individual taxpayers actually pay is among the lowest in the state.

“We’re bragging about that,” Amend said. “It’s huge – it’s a major statement about the bang for the buck.”

But rising property values mean higher taxes for some. Coeur d’Alene resident Annette Nickelby said she’d rather pay a fee for her daughter – a high school student – to participate in sports, or see her not play sports at all, than see the family’s property tax bill increase.

“The school spending has to stop somewhere,” she said. “People are tired of paying for it, they really are.”

But with 13 percent of the district’s budget tied to the levy, school officials say a defeat would leave the schools far different than anyone can picture. “To cut 13 percent from the general fund budget would compromise many of the programs we believe that the citizens of the Coeur d’Alene district hold as being very valuable,” Amend said, rattling off a list of programs supported by the levy.

“Those are things that our community has valued basically since 1986.”

What will it fund?

The advanced learning program would benefit from the additional $3 million. About $294,000 would fund two or three more teachers in larger population schools until the levy expires in 2009. All elementary schools, regardless of size, have one teacher in the program, meaning small schools have fewer students in the program.

Class sizes would also drop under the levy, with about $720,000 paying for six – or seven, depending on the person’s level of experience – new teaching positions. That could reduce some class sizes by two or three students.

The district will wait until preliminary enrollment numbers for next year come in until deciding where to put the extra teachers, Bauman said, but the first grade classes and the high school science classes are likely targets.

The largest chunk of the additional funds – about $822,000 – goes to technology. The last school construction levy funded technology upgrades and maintenance in the district for the last four years, but there’s no construction levy in place to continue that funding. The money in the proposed levy would go to maintaining the investments made over the last four years.

Training opportunities for staff would get $500,000. The money would mostly go for more training for teachers in math and reading curriculum and teaching methods, and for classified staff, Bauman said.

Lastly, $270,000 would be set aside for part-time vice principal positions at two high-enrollment elementary schools (likely Atlas and Ramsey), and $438,000 is earmarked to cover inflationary costs for other programs.

Inflationary costs won’t go away if voters reject the additional $3 million, so something would likely be cut to cover the added costs.

The addition of more programs and staffing positions means the levy amount can’t be reduced in coming years unless cuts are made. In Idaho, the levies are the only way to fund anything beyond basic educational offerings like required math and history courses.

But Nickelby thinks about the people she knows on fixed budget, and she recalls the quality education she got when schools didn’t ask for the extra money they do now.

“I’m voting no, and I’m encouraging others to vote no,” Nickelby said.

It’s voters like her who district officials have tried to reach over the months through mailings, town hall forums and newspaper columns. Bauman and Amend have talked to about 90 groups, and the district held an open forum in January for citizens to share their thoughts on what should be funded in the levy and how much it should cost.

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