Coeur d’Alene schools have had a good run of public support for a local tax levy that increasingly funds essential needs as well as extras like sports and music.
School board members find it tempting now to bump up the two-year levy request this year to fund pieces of a long wish list of items: updated instructional materials, more school nurses, better pay for substitute teachers, and additional teachers to ease classroom crowding, to name a few.
The Coeur d’Alene School District has identified $5.8 million in additional needs it would like to fund next school year, on top of the $12.87 million a year it takes in through the maintenance and operations property tax levy, which expires June 30.
But as generous as voters have been – four years ago they overwhelmingly supported a $5 million annual increase in the levy – school officials are wary of pushing their luck.
“Our community wants the best for their kids. So do I,” Superintendent Matt Handelman said. “But there is a tipping point.”
Handelman said he isn’t ready to recommend any increase in the levy request, which will be on the ballot March 10 and discussed at Monday night’s school board meeting.
“The last thing you want to do is not pass the levy,” he said. “Because then our world will be different. We won’t be buying next textbooks. We will be forced to lay off some of our employees. That would be catastrophic.”
School board Chairwoman Christa Hazel also is hesitant about raising the levy request.
“I am not convinced at the moment that now is the right time to ask for more, given the facts that we face,” she said.
The apprehension in large part comes from a financial dilemma in the construction of a new Winton Elementary School. Last month Handelman disclosed that the district is $1.8 million short in funding the project – a consequence, he said, of overestimating the savings on other bond projects and revenue from the sale of surplus property to help cover Winton’s $8 million price tag.
The shortfall has nothing to do with the operating levy, as the construction work is funded from a 2012 bond measure. But school leaders worry the problem casts a shadow over district finances just as they’re discussing how much to ask voters for this March.
“Even though they’re separate issues … there still is going to be the perception out there we’re asking for more money when we are faced with this budget gap for Winton,” Handelman said.
The levy covers 21 percent of the district’s $60 million general fund. The rest comes from the state – support that fell significantly when the economy soured and state tax revenues shrunk.
“I don’t think it’s wise to risk the 21 percent that we already have for that now,” Handelman said.
Hazel said the school district needs to maintain its integrity with taxpayers, who have been “incredibly supportive” of funding the schools, even through the lean years. That’s why she is inclined to keep the levy at the same level for the next two years.
“I really feel confident that maintaining is something that could and would be supported in a levy vote,” she said. “I would really have to weigh the pros and cons heavily and hear from members of our community how they feel about asking for more.”
Trustee Tom Hamilton said it would be irresponsible to not at least consider an increase in the levy amount.
“Our funding isn’t increasing but our costs most certainly are,” Hamilton said. “It’s just getting harder and harder to continue to do the things that we really need to do for our students without some additional revenue.”
He said he’s in favor of a levy increase specifically to pay for updated curricular materials, more school nurses and more teachers to reduce class sizes. But Hamilton said he’s also aware of the risk of going too far.
“The reason we’re so sensitive to public tolerance is because the levy is all or nothing – it either passes or it fails,” he said. “So if we guess wrong, we set the number too high and the levy fails, we’re in a lot of trouble.”
The school board has asked Handelman for a fuller explanation of how the Winton shortfall came about. The construction project was managed by Wendell Wardell, who served as chief operating officer for the district until his employment abruptly ended in November. State law prohibits the district from disclosing how or why Wardell left. Handelman has said “nothing illegal” happened to cause the deficit.
The public needs and will get an explanation of what happened with the Winton funding, and the board will take steps to mitigate the shortfall, Hamilton said.
“We’re going to be able to solve that problem,” he said. “But is that going to negatively impact public perception about this board’s responsibility and stewardship of taxpayer dollars? Unfortunately I think that it probably does. We’ve got some work to do to either gain back or maintain the public trust.”
One item on the district’s wish list is likely to be funded next year even if the levy remains unchanged, Handelman said. About $800,000 is needed to buy new math curricula – one area in which the district fell behind in recent years.
“We need to have some instructional material that’s up to date,” Hazel said. “We have some math books that are over 10 years old, and it shows.”
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