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Citizens, school officials chat

by MAUREEN DOLAN
Staff Writer | November 16, 2010 8:00 PM

COEUR d'ALENE - The cost of a cup of coffee came up a few times Monday during the Coeur d'Alene School District's first "Community Chat" school board meeting.

It became a symbol of financial priorities for some of the more than 20 community members who signed up to speak to school district trustees and Superintendent Hazel Bauman during the session that brought nearly 100 people to the Midtown Center.

"We are in listening mode," Bauman said to the standing room only crowd.

The focus of the meeting was the district's recently unveiled plans to ask voters to support an increased supplemental levy at the polls on March 8, rather than continue reducing their dependence on property tax levies.

The board's plan is 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, or to renew the 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.

"Some say the tax rate is too high," said Lake City High School music teacher Tim Sandford. "I would also like to add a little anecdote to that, that we are willing to pay $36 a gallon for coffee. Think about that."

The existing levy of $7.8 million per year for two years was approved by 74 percent of voters in the spring of 2009. It was $1 million less than the previous levy passed by voters in 2007.

The majority of those who spoke at Monday's meeting said they would support a levy. Many said they would support a levy, but they still want more specific information about how the funds will be used, and where cuts will be made without additional property tax dollars.

"I don't know if I'm in favor of the levy or not. It's too soon to tell. Quite frankly all of the information hasn't been given to us yet," said Duncan Koler, a parent who removed his children from the Coeur d'Alene district schools a year ago in favor of home schooling. "I think it behooves all of us as citizens, especially now in this time of financial emergency, and we do have a technical financial emergency in this district, to get all the facts before we make a decision."

Mary Ruch, a property owner and teacher at Woodland Middle School, said she was concerned about local home values falling further if a levy is not passed.

If the $7.8 million levy is not replaced by voters, Bauman said that worst case scenario would result in massive layoffs and the elimination of activities programs.

Steve Casey, former principal of Coeur d'Alene High School, said he would support any levy put in front of him because it's for his grandchildren. He also recalled what it was like in the '80s when a levy didn't pass in Coeur d'Alene, when there were 22 portable buildings at CHS and school was held in "double-shifts."

Casey, who runs the dual credit program at North Idaho College, said he has heard that Idaho education funding will be cut by another $60 million next year.

The Coeur d'Alene district is already operating with $8.4 million less than it had in 2008, mainly due to reductions in state funding. The general fund this year is down to $55.2 million and includes $42.6 million in state funds. In 2008, the general fund was $60 million with $50 million coming from state revenue.

Bryan Elementary parent Tony Norris said he would support a levy, but only if the funds were used for the students, not for administration.

District administration announced earlier this month that it would hold a series of public forum-style workshops as a venue for unrestricted public comments. At the time, Bauman said the "community chats" were a response to feedback regarding the district's recent decision to limit the opportunities for public testimony at regular school board meetings.

That didn't save the trustees and Bauman from hearing criticism about that decision.

Duncan Koler said he felt like he and his wife have been "chasing the board" for the last year trying to have their concerns heard because there is no chance for public input.

Bauman pointed out that was the purpose of Monday's "Community Chat" meeting.

"Thanks, but you didn't do this until you asked for a whole bunch of money," Koler said.

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