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School district’s funding ‘dire’

Fri., Aug. 23, 2013, midnight

Plummer Worley levy vote is Tuesday

A lot is riding on Tuesday’s levy election for the Plummer Worley School District on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation.

The cash-strapped district of about 400 students has eliminated all funding for athletics, cut kindergarten to part time, ordered three furlough days for all employees and will go to a four-day school week this fall.

The measures will stay in place unless voters approve a two-year, $1.1 million supplemental levy request.

“Those are pretty extreme things,” said Judi Sharrett, the district superintendent as well as its special education director. “I think it hit home just how dire it really is.”

The district is the only one in North Idaho without a property tax levy to make up for steep cuts the Legislature has made in public education spending.

The Plummer Worley district also relies on federal dollars from the Impact Aid Program, which accounts for Indian lands that are not part of local tax rolls. But that money also has dwindled.

The district’s state and federal support has fallen 33 percent in seven years, from $4.3 million to $2.9 million this coming school year.

“We’ve cut $2 million since 2007,” Sharrett said. “And we’re a small district, so that’s a substantial amount for us.”

The district tried to establish a supplemental tax levy in May but only had 45 percent of voters supporting it. After that, the school board made severe budget cuts, including axing all money for athletic programs. If the levy again fails Tuesday, the football, volleyball, basketball, track and golf teams would need to be supported entirely by private efforts.

“We have a lot of people who have been working on fundraising over the course of the summer, but that’s a lot of fundraising,” Sharrett said. “It just is very unorthodox to not have an athletic program, and it’s not good for kids to not have one.”

Art and other elective classes also have been cut. The district has put off buying new textbooks badly needed for upper grades, and broken surveillance cameras need to be replaced.

Going to a four-day school week would save about $90,000 a year, primarily in classified salary cuts and reducing transportation, utility and food service costs. Teachers and students would spend longer days at school, and many families would face additional child care costs for the weekday off.

“As a small, rural community there aren’t a lot of options available in that,” Sharrett said. “The tribe does run an early-childhood learning program, but last I heard they already have 100 on the waiting list.”

If voters approve the levy, the board will meet Wednesday morning to restore a five-day week before school resumes after Labor Day. Property owners would pay an additional $116 per $100,000 taxable value per year.

The district employs about 45 teachers at its two schools: an elementary school for prekindergarten through sixth grade, and a secondary school for seventh through 12th grades.

“These are hard times for public schools, in particular ours,” Sharrett said. “We’ve just done everything we can to not have to go out for a supplemental levy. But it’s really important for the basic operating budget for the district as well as offering a comprehensive program for kids.”

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