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Bauman: Levy is 'essential'

Staff Writer | December 15, 2010 8:00 PM

COEUR d'ALENE - It is called a supplemental levy, but the property tax measure that will go before Coeur d'Alene School District voters in March is anything but.

"That would be a poor choice of words because it is no longer supplemental. It is allowing us to keep on breathing. It is essential," said Superintendent Hazel Bauman.

The supplemental maintenance and operations levy mechanism set forth in Idaho Code allows districts to ask voters for permission to increase local property taxes for a set amount for two years.

The last levy approved by district voters was in 2009 for $7.8 million per year. That levy expires at the end of June.

If voters fail to approve another levy, the district faces a $12.8 million shortfall for the next school year; it loses the expiring levy amount of $7.8 million as well as another $5 million in one-time federal stimulus and job fund dollars.

The nearly $13 million budget hole is in addition to $8.8 million that has already been slashed from the budget since 2009.

"We've cut back and we know we have to sustain those cutbacks," Bauman said. "I don't see how we can go much further."

Part of the problem is that nearly all funds the district receives from the state and federal government are designated for specific purposes.

"Local control is pretty much a figment of the imagination at this point," Bauman said.

There are legal and contractual obligations that must be met also, she said.

The amount of funds a school district receives from the state for teacher salaries and benefits is determined by a formula based on the number of students attending district schools.

The Coeur d'Alene School District is serving 10,254 students this year. For that amount of students, the state provides funds for a minimum of 538 instructional staff - teachers and anyone whose position requires certification.

Those funds can only be used for that purpose, and if a district uses less instructional staff than the formula allows, it loses the state funding for those jobs.

"We're in a use it or lose it situation," said Steve Briggs, the district's finance chief. "Since we are now with our certified staff at the state minimum, we really don't have anywhere to go when we're talking about cutting positions."

Base salaries have already been frozen across the board, and employees are paying a greater share of their health insurance premium.

"Across the district, duties from the cut positions have been picked up by co-workers. People are actually working harder for less, and it's certainly a challenge to the system. We're hoping we can avoid making that any worse," Briggs said.

There are no "use it or lose it" strings attached to funding for administrative or support staff - librarians, classrooms and playground aides, crossing guards, secretaries, tech support, bus drivers. If jobs need to be eliminated through budget cuts, that is the direction the district is forced to look.

But schools in Coeur d'Alene are already operating with six less administrators than the state's recommended minimum. Assistant principals have already been removed from the district's larger elementary schools and from the high schools.

There have been no new curriculum adoptions, which means no new textbooks, for several years.

During the last school board meeting, Superintendent Bauman held up a copy of a U.S. history book students are still using. It was falling apart. The front cover was nearly torn off.

Briggs said he found it troubling that the book is a 1997 edition, from when Bill Clinton was president.

"There was no George W. Bush in the White House. We had not had 2001, and 9-11, and all the events that have happened since, including the changes of country's names," Briggs said. "It doesn't mean they aren't being taught, but it does mean the textbooks are lacking."

Trustees are leaning toward a menu-style ballot that gives voters the opportunity to vote to replace the existing $7.8 million levy only. Those who vote yes for the replacement will be able to vote on an additional amount of $2.3 million, $3.7 million, or $5 million to be added to it.

The $5 million addition will raise the levy to $12.8 million per year for two years, and is the only amount that will stabilize the district's budget, unless there are additional cuts to state education funds during the next legislative session.

Bauman has suggested trustees ask taxpayers for at least an additional $3.7 million, for a two-year levy of $11.5 million per year.

The early word they're hearing from Boise, Bauman said, is that there could be another cut in state funding for school districts of up to 10 percent.

"That means we would have to cut another $3 to $4 million from our budget, even with the largest levy, "she said.

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