At Lakes Magnet Middle School north of downtown Coeur d’Alene, a small room inside the main office is piled high with obsolete textbooks. A larger room one floor up is stacked with hundreds more, some more than 10 years old.
New, relevant instructional materials that align to the latest educational standards and curricula are one of the priorities of a $15 million-a-year school levy the Coeur d’Alene School District has on the March 10 ballot.
Another goal is to hire more teachers to reduce class sizes that swelled during the recession when Idaho slashed state funding for public schools.
The school board set the two-year levy request at $15 million annually. It’s $2.1 million a year more than the levy expiring in June. School trustees said they want the additional funds to be spent on new instructional materials and more teachers.
The levy, which now supports 20 percent of the district’s general fund, also pays for a long list of programs: athletics, art and music, student transportation, school resource officers and nurses, teacher aides, academic support for high achievers and struggling students, replacement and upkeep of computers, building maintenance and grounds keeping, and more.
At Lakes, students make projects in a wood shop, work out with weights in the gymnasium and produce daily newscasts in a TV studio – just a few activities that easily could vanish without the local tax levy.
“I couldn’t tell you what it would look like if 20 percent of our funding were gone,” Principal Jeff Bengtson said. “It’s not supplemental. It funds the essentials that we’ve grown accustomed to in Coeur d’Alene.”
For years the district put off buying new textbooks as its budget was squeezed by legislative cuts. As a result, Coeur d’Alene schools fell off the state’s recommended six-year replacement cycle for instructional materials in math, English, science, social studies, health, economics and other subjects.
“In less lean years districts stayed on that cycle,” Superintendent Matt Handelman said. “You always had up-to-date textbooks and you were never worried about either the physical wear-out or them being outdated. And as standards changed you were able to keep up with that.”
The only major purchase the district made the past five years was new social studies texts for middle and high school students. The district plans to hop back on the state adoption cycle for the coming school year with new math materials, replacing books that are 13 years old. Teachers are already trying samples from publishers.
The following year the district would buy new science books, and if funding can be continued, new English language arts materials would come the year after that.
The goal is to make sure the purchases – textbooks or digital materials – align as much as possible with the Idaho Core Standards that were adopted four years ago and are being integrated into the district’s curricula.
“There’s probably going to be nothing that’s absolutely perfect … but it’s going to be a heck of a lot better than it is in our current state,” Handelman said.
Levy dollars would also be dedicated to lowering class sizes.
Up to two additional students were squeezed into each elementary school classroom in recent years, raising class sizes to 25 in kindergarten and first grades, to 28 in second and third grades, and to 32 in fourth and fifth grades.
“Our plan is to lower the class size back to what I call prerecession maximums,” Handelman said. “We have to phase that in.”
The district will hire about five new elementary teachers for next school year and another five or six the year after that. That will enable the district to lower class sizes by two students in kindergarten, second and fourth grades next year, and do the same for first, third and fifth grades the following year.
The six secondary schools will split six new full-time equivalent positions, with the principals choosing how to strategically lower class sizes.
“It might mean two (teachers) in this school or 1.4 in this school or 1.6 in this school,” Handelman said. “Those will go anywhere from lowering class size in science in one school to remedial classes in another.”
Idaho lawmakers are considering increasing school funding to begin to restore what they cut during the economic downturn, but districts must make their levy requests without yet knowing what this year’s Legislature will do or whether additional state funding will be earmarked for certain spending, Handelman said.
“If we want to ensure these local priorities happen, the only way we can ensure that is by using local dollars,” he said.
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