The parking lot at Sandpoint High School was packed with cars like it was the night of a championship basketball game. But the nearly 1,300 residents who poured into the school gym Monday were not spectators.
They came to send Bonner County School Superintendent Max Harrell and the school board a message:
Not in sports programs, not in choir, drama or band. Not in any extracurricular programs for students.
“We may have some budget problems, but I know cutting extracurricular activities and taking away from the kids is not the solution,” said Bob Witte, a parent with five children in the school system.
“We don’t want any cuts and we are here to show how adamant we are that there has got to be another solution.”
Witte is part of a newly formed group called Caring Citizens for Kids and Community. The group organized Monday’s town meeting to fight a proposal to cap next school year’s extracurricular activities budget at 50 percent of the current level.
Harrell asked for the cap to try to slow down spending in the district, which will be about $544,000 in debt by the end of the year. Harrell said the cap doesn’t mean programs will be cut, because it could be lifted if the district finds it can afford to. The cap would give the district breathing room until it finds out how much state money it will receive, he has said.
The proposal has outraged residents who say taxpayer money is going to school administrators rather than students. Residents in the packed gym challenged school administrators to cut their budgets by 50 percent and asked Harrell, the 10th-highest paid school superintendent in the state, to refuse his annual raise and instead take a pay cut.
“The schools are for the children, not the administrators,” said student Tammy Owens. Another student, Matt Baker, strolled the gym floor scattering papers on the hardwood as he stepped to the microphone. Extracurricular activities are an integral part of education, not dessert that can be pushed aside, he said. The papers on the floor held signatures of 612 students, asking the school board to reject the 50 percent cap.
Slashing extracurricular activities, such as band, drama, choir, yearbook and sports, would limit students’ chances for college scholarships, said Meghan Collins, student body vice president.
“If you take it (extracurricular activities) away you send potential MITers to NIC,” she said, referring to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and North Idaho College.
The high school presented its award-winning choir and a flute soloist to showcase extracurricular activities. Students even put on a skit showing how they already beg local business for money to keep extracurricular programs alive. At the end, students suggested district administrators try fund raisers, such as bake sales and raffles. Administrators are under fire for buying new laptop computers and hiring a negotiator for $14,500 to settle a contract dispute with teachers while calling for cuts.
While Harrell has insisted a cap is not a cut, Sandpoint High School Athletic Director Jack Dyck said that is what he fears it will end up being. The district now only pays for coaches’ salaries and transportation for its sports teams.
“We get nothing else,” Dyck said. “We are not asking for any more dollars and it may sound like a strange request but we would like to stay as currently underfunded as we are.
“That may not sound like strong motivation words from a coach,” he said. “‘But the message is we don’t want these caps to be cuts. We cannot raise any more money in our community than we already are.”
Parent Mike Boeck said the core issue that filled the gym Monday night was “trust.” Residents no longer trust the district and how it spends taxpayer money, he said, adding it will lose even more trust if it tries to balance its budget by denying kids a chance to participate in extracurricular activities.
Boeck called for the cap to be rejected and for a citizens committee to be appointed and charged with reducing expenses and personnel in the central office.
“If Bonner County is ever going to pick itself up from this mess, it’s going to have to establish trust at all levels.”
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