Even by its own standards, it’s already been an interesting year for the Lakeland Joint School District.
Two weeks into the school year, the board chair is facing a recall, the beleaguered superintendent is trying to cope with skyrocketing enrollment and a sharply divided board of trustees just rejected an emergency levy that would have addressed the issue.
Perhaps the least divisive issue in the greater Rathdrum area is COVID-19. Backed by overwhelming local support, the board has authorized a back-to-school operational plan that doesn’t include contact tracing or an official policy on face coverings.
The word “mask” doesn’t appear anywhere on the district’s homepage despite soaring COVID-19 numbers in Kootenai County.
Whether infections are rising in Rathdrum is anybody’s guess, because a parent-led subcommittee recommended last week against publishing a COVID-19 dashboard.
Regardless, risks will be higher because many classrooms are packed. Because of a housing boom on the Rathdrum Prairie, enrollment hit an all-time high of 4,718; that’s 377 more than the district expected.
The board confronted the issue during a special meeting last Friday.
Citing overcrowded classes across the district, Superintendent Becky Meyer and her staff requested a $1.5 million emergency levy that would have paid for 13 additional full-time teachers and 12 additional classrooms. The tax would not have required a public vote if the board had approved it.
Brian Wallace, the district’s chief financial officer, broke down the numbers for the board.
With approval of the entire $2 million allowed by law, taxpayers would have paid about 44 cents per $1,000 of taxable property. With approval of the requested $1.5 million, the levy rate would have remained close to what it was last year.
Sensing the division, board Vice Chair Rob Irons submitted a motion to “find a middle ground and authorize a million dollar levy … to keep the tax base below what we had last year and still allow us to hire staff to take care of our students.”
The proposal, however, failed 3-2, with Irons and Randi Bain voting in favor.
Debbie Major and Ramona Grissom and board chair Michelle Thompson voted “no” despite Meyer’s protestations that “if the board does not approve the levy, we will not be able to hire the teachers that we need and we will have to cut in other areas, if that is the board’s desire.”
Meyer also reminded the board of its previous requests for smaller class sizes.
Thompson, however, appeared to question the district’s commitment to cost-cutting at Friday’s meeting.
“Is there any room in the budget that hasn’t been looked at, or did you just go straight to the emergency levy?” she asked Meyer.
“I think we should look at everything we have before we go to people and force them to pay more money,” Thompson said.
Meyer replied tersely.
“We’ve run a very tight ship here,” Meyer said. “I don’t think cleaning our house is the issue.”
The exchange continues the board’s tense relationship with the superintendent.
Meyer’s contract expires next summer because a divided board voted not to extend her three-year rolling contract last year. Thompson was among those who voted against the extension.
Meanwhile, Thompson is facing a recall election, partly because of opposition to her treatment of Meyer.
Earlier this month, a Facebook group known as Save the Lakeland Way collected enough signatures to qualify for a recall election Nov. 2.
“School board members should care about the children’s education,” said Teri Skubitz, chair of the recall effort.
Skubitz said she believes that Thompson and others are “working together to find some sort reason to get rid of Dr. Meyer.”
Skubitz’s husband, Tim, lost to Thompson in the 2019 school board election in Zone 3. Teri Skubitz said Monday that neither she nor her husband plan to file for the seat, should Thompson be recalled.
Thompson did not respond to a request for comment on the recall effort.
Last week she told the Coeur d’Alene Press that the Save the Lakeland Way group “seems quite biased and skewed and is creating a divisive environment.”
“The social media campaign led by a small group of hostile people asking for my removal as trustee is frustrating,” Thompson said.
Meyer has refrained from criticizing the board. On the contrary, during the Rathdrum Area Chamber of Commerce State of the Community Luncheon earlier this year, she praised the board’s “courage” for keeping students in school five days a week.”
On the other hand, based on community input received during the past 18 months, it could hardly do otherwise.
Stakeholders in conservative northern Kootenai County pushed hard last year for full-time, in-person learning, with masks optional. Lakeland was the only major district in the Inland Northwest to do so for the entire year.
Last month, as COVID-19 rates in the area began to soar again, the district sought public input on a mask requirement in the absence of a statewide mandate.
Again, the public weighed in emphatically.
“Give parents and families the choice to do as they feel with their own children/students,” one wrote. “If people want online they can but my son needs to be in school 100% of the time back to normal.”
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