One morning this week at Coeur d’Alene High School, students in a theater class glazed clay soup bowls they molded for a fundraiser aimed at providing hungry students with healthy snacks.
In another part of the building, two dozen girls in Advanced Glee, a choral music class inspired by the popular TV show “Glee,” took part in a mock dance audition to Janet Jackson’s “Alright.”
Down another corridor, 28 students packed into a French language class worked on translating questions from English using some new vocabulary and grammar concepts. One boy gave another a high-five for a correct answer.
This is a glimpse of the educational spice rack kept stocked by a property tax levy that has grown ever more vital to the Coeur d’Alene School District.
Classes like these, as well as sports, student clubs, technology, school safety, bus operations and a host of other spending areas would be curtailed or eliminated if voters decided to not renew the district’s supplemental tax levy next month.
Now covering 21 percent of the district’s budget, the levy has evolved from a means of enhancing the school experience to also paying for fundamental operations no longer supported by state revenues, school officials say.
“It is now essential funding for the programs and the people in the district,” Superintendent Hazel Bauman said.
School psychologists and counselors, safety officers, and programs tailored to advanced learners and struggling students are a few examples, Bauman said. “Those programs absolutely couldn’t be sustained without the levy,” she said.
Throughout the state, school districts are relying more on local property taxes to make up for a steep drop in state support.
Idaho remains stuck in the cellar of state spending on public education. Its per-pupil spending ranked next to last in the nation the past two years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The share of personal income that goes to Idaho schools has dropped 23 percent since 2000, the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy reports.
Even if the Coeur d’Alene levy passes March 12, the school district still faces a shortfall as great as $3 million in the coming year. To close that gap, the school board this spring will look at cutting school programs, teacher benefits and even staff positions.
Against that backdrop, it would be “catastrophic” to the school district to also lose all that is supported by the levy, School board Chairman Tom Hamilton said.
“You’d have to cut it back to a bare-bones operation, and we would struggle at that level to provide even basic education,” Hamilton said.
For three decades Coeur d’Alene voters have backed the school district’s maintenance and operations levy, which comes up every two years. In response to dwindling state revenues, the district two years ago rolled the dice on a substantial increase in the levy amount, and voters went along with it.
Bauman said she’s grateful for the ongoing support of the voters, but she knows the district can’t take it for granted.
“I wish we didn’t have to ask the community every two years to support us at this level. And my hope is that the state Legislature will start to replace some of the lost revenues as the economy returns,” she said.
If that happens, she added, “I would pledge to start reducing the levy proportionately to those increases.”
Hamilton and the other four board members will be in Boise early next week to meet with state lawmakers, and school funding will top their agenda.
“Being reliant on a levy that you have to rerun every two years in order to fund 21 percent of your operation is an awfully risky position to be in,” Hamilton said. “We would like some more consistency and stability and a higher dollar amount in what we can count on year to year from the state for funding.”
He is the chairman of a board with solidly conservative fiscal principles, but the trustees decided not to reduce the levy request this time around and even backed a small increase in the first year to enhance security at all 17 schools.
“We think it’s unfortunate the amount has to be so high, but we accept it’s necessary, and we support it because of that,” Hamilton said.
He hears from some residents who question spending money on art and music classes or athletics – both relatively small pieces of the levy.
“We realize that art and music has a strong impact to learning. It keeps kids engaged in school that otherwise we might lose. Sports programs are exactly the same,” Hamilton said. “If we had to cut them, we would. But that would be the last resort. This board would not advocate for cutting those programs simply to find a way to reduce a tax burden.”
Noelle Branen, mother of four children in Coeur d’Alene schools, lamented the need to return to voters every two years to keep up basic support for schools.
“It’s a huge distraction,” Branen said. “What we’re trying to do is teach our kids and stay focused, and then we have to divert that to beg and plead and barter and give blood to draw this money. It takes the energy away from what we’re trying to do, which is stay continuous in how we’re teaching our kids.”
The board added $1.4 million to the first year of the levy request in response to heightened awareness of school safety following the deadly shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December. The money would be spent this year on better fences, gates, doors, cameras and other school upgrades.
“Frankly, Sandy Hook changed our perspective about safety,” Bauman said. “It was always important, but I think the vulnerability, especially of our elementary schools, just came so sharply into focus after the tragedy.
“We said we really can’t just nibble away at this.”
Branen said the issue is of critical importance. “The kids have to be safe at school, we have to protect them at all costs,” she said. “They have to be able to learn without being worried.”