Board considers lowering amount to encourage approval by voters
Concerned about the weak economy and taxpayer fatigue, the Coeur d’Alene School Board is considering lowering the amount of the school district’s supplemental tax levy, which comes up for renewal in March.
Doing so would compound a serious budget shortfall – estimated at between $2 million and $3 million – for the coming school year due to declining income tax and sales tax revenues in Idaho.
Board members are mulling some difficult cuts, such as eliminating the school bus department and turning student transportation over to a private company, and further reducing employee health care benefits.
The district will host a community chat Wednesday night to gauge voter temperament on the two-year maintenance and operations levy, which funds student activities such as art and music, athletics, classroom supplies, salaries for teacher aides and other support staff, technology upgrades, and maintenance on buildings and grounds.
Voters in spring 2011 approved a substantial increase in the levy to offset steep cuts in state funding of education. Now district officials are looking for ways to reduce the levy request, even as state revenues keep falling.
“I believe there’s a limit to the community’s largesse,” Superintendent Hazel Bauman said. “And I’d rather reduce and pass it than fail it. It’s one of those really delicate balances to try and achieve.”
School Board Chairman Tom Hamilton said he, too, wants to look hard at lowering the burden on taxpayers.
“If the supplemental levy doesn’t pass, it’s catastrophic to the district. It’s 23 percent of our budget,” Hamilton said. “So you run a risk of just flat-out saying we’re going to run it at the same level.”
Taxpayers in the district of 10,200 students have shown strong support for school funding in recent years.
In August, almost 72 percent of voters said yes to a $32.7 million bond measure to renovate some of the oldest schools in the district and make other upgrades.
The district also has enjoyed more than two decades of voter support for supplemental levies, which fund the portion of the district’s budget not covered by state support. In March 2011, voters approved a pair of tax measures that set the district’s supplemental levy at $12.9 million a year – an increase of about $5 million a year.
But even with that growth in the levy, the district’s levy rate is the lowest of the 13 largest school districts in the state.
The district has grown to rely more on the supplemental levy. The state’s portion of the budget has fallen the past four years, from a high of $49.7 million in fiscal year 2009 to an estimated $40.6 million this school year.
The district has reduced some transportation costs in recent years by changing bus routes and postponing replacement of older buses. Now the board is looking at how much could be saved by outsourcing busing of students.
Another area of potential savings is employee benefits. Salaries and benefits account for 88 percent of the district’s $60 million budget, and the board has chipped away at benefits the past four years to trim costs.
“We definitely don’t want to do anything to make salaries any lower than they are, absolutely not,” Hamilton said.
“Benefits are a harder thing,” he said. “There’s probably work that needs to be done there.”
Trustees are gearing up to scrutinize health insurance costs. The district now pays 71 percent of the medical premium for an employee’s family members, down from a high of 78 percent. Hamilton said raising deductibles, which he believes are on the generous side, may be one route to savings.
But he added, “It would be very unwise to do anything draconian to the benefits package because teacher retention is extremely important.”
The board also will consider dipping deeper into district reserves to cover the budget shortfall. The district has a little more than $5 million in reserves.
The board aims to settle on a levy amount by late January for the March election.
“I think it would be wise to show the public that we found ways to find a reduction in there without impacting classrooms,” Hamilton said.
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