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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

CdA district $1.8 million short on cost of new Winton school

Coeur d’Alene School District officials say they’re $1.8 million short in paying for a new school scheduled to open next September.

The funding gap for Winton Elementary School was discussed publicly for the first time at a school board workshop Monday night. Superintendent Matt Handelman said he learned about the shortfall about two months ago and immediately tightened his oversight of the $8 million project.

School trustees will consider closing the difference using district reserves but said they also want to look at selling district-owned property to help cover the cost.

“This is a problem we can solve within our means” and without delaying the school’s opening, board Chairman Christa Hazel said.

Winton is the last in a series of school expansions, renovations and technology upgrades paid for by a $32.7 million bond measure approved by voters in 2012. The school – the oldest in the district – was to be renovated for about $5 million, but the school board decided instead to tear down and rebuild Winton and make it large enough for an additional 160 students. That boosted the price tag to $7.2 million, not including architectural and engineering fees.

The district planned to cover the additional cost through savings on other bond projects, the sale of a surplus piece of property and other measures, but it wasn’t enough, Handelman said.

“I think that we were too optimistic of cost savings,” he said after Monday’s meeting.

The bond projects were managed by Wendell Wardell, who was the district’s chief operating officer until his sudden departure last month. State law prohibits the district from disclosing how or why Wardell left.

“That is a personnel matter, and I’m not allowed to comment,” Handelman said.

The district seeks to hire a new director of finance and operations, and the Winton shortfall makes it a pressing matter, he said. “It absolutely shows why I need to fill the role.”

The district began the year with about $7 million in contingency funds, which could be tapped to cover the Winton shortfall, although that would put a big dent in the district’s reserves for next school year, Handelman said.

“So it creates a challenge. It’s not insurmountable, but it’s a challenge,” he said.

Trustee Tom Hamilton noted that the revelation of the Winton gap comes just as the board prepares to ask voters in March to renew – and possibly increase – the district’s supplemental maintenance and operations tax levy.

“The timing on that is awful,” Hamilton said.

The two-year levy raises $12.9 million a year and covers 21 percent of the district’s budget – everything from athletics, art and music to custodial work, libraries, technology and transportation costs. Levy funds are not used for major construction projects.

The board on Monday talked about properties the district might sell to help pay for Winton. That includes 10 acres off Thomas Lane near 22nd Street in east Coeur d’Alene; the Midtown Center where the board meets; and the administrative offices off Northwest Boulevard, which the district bought and moved into early last year.

Trustee Dave Eubanks said he didn’t think the district needs the head office space, but Hamilton countered it wouldn’t make sense to dump that asset just to lease space elsewhere.

The district needs to close the gap by June 30, the end of its fiscal year. T.W. Clark Construction of Spokane is scheduled to finish the school next July.