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Not much talk at schools chat

by MAUREEN DOLAN
Staff Writer | December 3, 2010 8:00 PM

COEUR d'ALENE - The public wasn't feeling very chatty.

The Coeur d'Alene School District's second in a series of special board meetings - "community chats" designed to encourage public comment and get feedback regarding a proposed maintenance and operations levy - attracted only about 20 non-school district personnel Thursday to the Midtown Center.

Of those in attendance, just four had something to say, and there wasn't much discussion about the levy.

"We're trying to listen," said Superintendent Hazel Bauman, following the 50-minute session.

The informal dialogue meetings were set up following the board's decision at the start of the school year to limit public testimony to agenda items only at their regular monthly meetings.

At the start of Thursday's chat meeting, Bauman gave a presentation about the levy proposal that will go before voters March 8, and answered questions that came up at the first chat-style meeting held last month, especially what could happen if voters fail to approve a levy. That meeting brought nearly 100 people out, and 30 of them took the opportunity to address the board.

The board plans to set the amount of the levy at its Jan. 10 meeting.

The proposal is for a menu-style ballot, offering voters the opportunity to support just a replacement levy of $7.8 million per year for two years, or to renew the $7.8 million levy and increase it annually for two years by another set amount: $2.3 million, $3.7 million, or $5 million.

The cost to taxpayers depends on the amount approved. It is estimated the owner of a $200,000 home would pay $105.68 annually to maintain the $7.8 million levy only.

Should taxpayers approve an additional $5 million, the same homeowner will pay an estimated $173.70 per year.

If voters fail to approve any levy, the district will experience a 23 percent budget shortfall of $13 million for the next school year.

Bauman said they will have to cut 115 full-time, and 165 part-time, support positions which include classroom aides, crossing guards, custodians, tech support, bus drivers and library personnel, and three full-time assistant principals from the middle and high schools. Activities budgets would be eliminated, as would textbook purchases, school resource officers, most supply purchases and technology support.

Up to 20 days could be furloughed from the school calendar.

If voters approve the replacement levy only, the district will still experience a 9 percent budget shortfall of $5 million. There will be budget cuts in the same areas, but they will be proportionately smaller. For example, activities budgets will be reduced rather than eliminated.

The only scenario in which there will be no budget shortfall is if voters approve a replacement levy of $7.8 million, and an additional $5 million, for a total levy of nearly $13 million.

Bauman said even in that case, there could still be some cuts if the state reduces its support to schools further during the next legislative session.

The rest of the meeting turned into a dialogue between Bauman, the trustees, and Duncan Koler, a Hayden parent who removed his children from district schools in favor of home schooling.

Koler has been critical of the district's decision to continue offering the International Baccalaureate advanced learning high school program, and an elementary school IB program.

He chastised the board for limiting public input at their regular meetings.

"The excuse that's been offered up to the public about why you need to cut off public comment is a bogus excuse," Koler said. "There wasn't any filibustering of those meetings. There was legitimate public concern regarding that program (IB) which still exists today."

Koler asked board chair Edie Brooks why the policy has been enforced since October when it has not been formally adopted by the district. It is likely the new policy will be an agenda item at the board's regular meeting scheduled for Monday.

"When we have our regular meetings, we are having a meeting in public, not a public meeting, so we're trying to do business of the district and get it done without having it go on for a long period of time on subjects that aren't on the agenda," Brooks said. "We like to stick to the agenda and have these meetings where we can bring up any subject that anyone would like to talk about."

Superintendent Hazel Bauman said the board can change a policy without following the district's policy procedure.

"We checked with legal counsel on that. It's preferable to go through the procedure of a policy change, so there is input and there has been input on this change in the policy," Bauman said.

Bauman asked Koler if any number of community chat-style meetings would provide what he considers a satisfactory way for the board to receive public input outside of the regular monthly meetings.

Koler pointed out that the regular monthly meetings are recorded and broadcast on the local cable access station, Time Warner Channel 19, so people who cannot attend the meetings are able to "see what's going on."

The "community chats" are not recorded and broadcast.

"So in effect, you've stifled the opportunities for those concerns to be brought to the public at large. That's my concern," Koler said. "I would just urge the board not to adopt the change policy at the meeting this Monday."

The policy on public commentary at regular board meetings also limits testimony to three minutes per person, and prohibits the audio or video recording of meetings by anyone other than members of the media.

Another community chat meeting will take place Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Hayden Kinder Center on Government Way in Hayden.

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