Boundary County’s weeklong string of bad luck continued Tuesday when voters rejected a one-year school levy by a narrow margin.
Now, the school district is poised to make $1 million worth of cuts to the district’s budget, possibly eliminating all sports and activities, closing Naples Elementary and cutting the school week back to four days. Kindergarten will likely be reduced to two days a week.
The news came just days after the county’s largest private employer – CEDU Educational Services’ emotional-growth schools – abruptly closed, leaving about 300 people jobless.
Levy supporters said that news, coupled with some last-minute negative campaigning by a property owners’ group, caused the levy to fail.
“I apologize to the children of Boundary County for what’s going to happen to their education and their future,” Superintendent Don Bartling said. “It’s grossly unfair to the children of Boundary County that we have to cut 10 percent from a budget that’s barely adequate to begin with.”
Bartling said he was told 35 “vote yes” signs were taken down and replaced with signs against the levy as part of the “strategically planned opposition right at the end.”
The Boundary County Property Owners Association sent mailers to voters last weekend and purchased radio spots against the levy. Richard Fairfield, a member of the group, was celebrating the failure of the levy Wednesday.
“If you’d heard me this morning, you would have just heard a loud scream,” he said. “It was perfect.”
Fairfield said he opposed the levy because he felt like the district has more than enough money already, but said they don’t manage it well. He said he had several ideas for ways the district could do things differently, but didn’t want to “put them out there for the public.”
After difficulty passing previous levies, the school district formed a restructuring committee made up of critics and supporters. The 17-member group proposed an $800,000 one-year levy and released a list of recommendations to reduce spending and save money.
The levy was about $185,000 lower than the levy expiring this spring – pared down to the bare essentials needed to keep the district running, according to the committee. If voters had approved Tuesday’s levy, the district would have had to trim the $185,000 difference.
The levy’s failure means the district has to cut thousands more from the budget, including everything the expiring levy had funded.
“I think there are some people who would like to think they’re going to do cosmetic surgery when they’re going to be doing amputation with a chain saw,” said parent Marty Becker. “It’s naivety.”
Becker said he felt like the closure of the CEDU schools had a definite impact on the levy election.
“Literally everybody I’ve talked to feels like that was the tipping point,” Becker said. “It was really bad news at just the wrong time that really took the wind out of the sails.”
Julian Bucher, father of two Bonners Ferry graduates, said the levy accounted for 11 percent of the school district’s budget.
“You reduce your expenditures by 11 percent, you affect service by 100 percent,” he said. “When you look at what’s at stake, that levy should have passed with at least a 70 percent margin. It was a combination of little hurts and some small-town politics.”
Bucher said he had one child graduate from Stanford and the other from Princeton, both with honors.
“They felt that they had received an education that put them on par with their contemporaries,” Bucher said, “most of which had graduated from expensive private schools. I owe this school district a debt I can never repay.”
In the past, the district has had to put levies before voters more than once before they passed. Bartling said the district made a commitment not to do that this time. The hope was that voters would take stock in the recommendations of the restructuring committee and accept the reduced levy amount, he said.
The district is looking into the possibility of a local-option sales tax to replace the lost levy dollars and ease the burden on property owners, Bartling said. Legislative action would be required, though.
Bartling plans to meet with school principals and district employees today to come up with a list of cuts to present to the school board April 11.
The district’s only certified librarian could be cut, along with a high school counseling position and an office worker at the junior high. The school week could be cut to four days and kindergarten scaled back to twice-a-week. Naples Elementary, a small, outlying school, could be closed.
Bartling said the district could save more than $200,000 by eliminating all sports programs and activities.
“It’s hard to justify the major cuts we’ll be making in the school district and justify having the activities,” he said. Elective classes could also be eliminated.
Bonners Ferry Mayor Darrell Kerby acknowledged it had been a rough week for the community but was optimistic that the town would bounce back.
“In spite of the doom and gloom, people are picking themselves up by the bootstraps and making the best of it,” he said. “Similarly so will the school board and so will the employees of CEDU.”
Becker said he believed the harshness of the cuts will be enough to convince the community that the restructuring committee was right.
“They do need the levy to operate,” he said. “My biggest disappointment is for the kids. We’re really striving to be average. We’d be happy with average and now we’re going to below average.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.