Monday, September 25, 2023

OPINION: Bringing facts to the levy discussion

by DR. SHON HOCKER/Guest Opinion
| April 26, 2023 1:00 AM

Last month the Coeur d'Alene School District proposed a $25 million perpetual supplemental levy and a $5 million school plant facility levy. Both levy requests narrowly failed. We removed perpetuity from the supplemental levy and we fully removed the plant facility levy request and are presenting the revised single levy on May 16; a $25 million two-year supplemental levy. Without the levy, the district will lose 25% of our budget, forcing cuts of 300+ jobs, eliminating programs including sports, and closing one or two elementary schools.

The misinformation spreading around our community about the district and the levy is intended to create confusion. One area included in this misinformation is the actual levy cost to taxpayers. The owner of a $525K home is currently paying $384/year or $32/month for the existing $20 million levy. That homeowner’s cost for the $25 million levy would increase to $460/year or $38.33/month. That’s $6.33 more per month. If the levy passes, our levy rate would be the fifth smallest of Idaho’s 20 largest districts.

Our district’s estimated portion of additional state funding for next year is $6.4 million. So, why do we still need the levy, or why don’t we reduce our ask by $6 million? Answer: because the district will net only $1 million of that increase. Why? Because the money from the state comes with strings attached. It can only be used for teacher/staff salary increases. In addition, the money we receive doesn’t cover the cost of benefits associated with increased salaries. We also need to replace the 18% inflation we have experienced since the last levy increase in 2019, and we need to unfreeze areas of teacher/staff salaries. Even with the additional state funding, we still have a $24 million budget shortfall if the levy fails.

Idaho ranks last in the country in its K-12 spending per student at less than $8,400, compared to $14,500 in Washington, $11,300 in Oregon and $12,100 in Montana. Idaho relies on local levies to close the gap generated by state funding shortfalls. Most Idaho school districts operate with levies to fund additional opportunities for students. Our district uses levy funds to pay for extracurricular activities, full-day kindergarten, KTEC, music and art, school safety and security officers, nurses, and so much more. Without help to cover the costs of these opportunities, they will go away.

We have received questions about our enrollment, staffing, budget and academic performance. District enrollment has grown over the past 30 years from 7,757 students in 1993 to 10,118 students in 2023. Enrollment increased 1.5% to 2% per year since 2012, peaking in 2020 to just over 11,000 students. The district increased staff to accommodate this growth. Enrollment declined in FY20-21 due to the pandemic but is rebounding. We are working to right-size the number of staff we have, regardless of the outcome of the levy. Since 2012, the district has hired 88 new staff: teachers to handle increased enrollment; full-day kindergarten; increased numbers of special needs students; mental health services; campus safety officers; and administrators in key areas (assistant elementary principals). Every new hire comes in response to state requirements, audit findings, and/or service expectations of the community.

Some critics say our schools are failing our students. Not True. Our students excel, ranking second in the state in math and English, behind only West Ada School District. Eighth grade scores in math and reading are among the highest in the nation. Sorensen Magnet and Hayden Meadows elementary schools are two of the top 10 elementary schools in Idaho. Student ISAT, ELA and math scores are consistently above the state average. And we have the second highest high school graduation rate among other large school districts in Idaho. Our schools are not always perfect, but they are very good. And we are committed to improving every day.

Our community has a choice to make on May 16. As a school district, we are devoted to bringing facts to the levy discussion so voters can make informed choices. There is no room in the conversation for departure from the truth or stoking the flames of division. There is only room for a shared commitment to truth and dedication to the important work of educating our young people who will eventually become the future of Coeur d’Alene. We all know strong schools build strong communities. I hope you will join us in this work — it will take all of us. Please vote May 16.

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Dr. Shon Hocker is superintendent of the Coeur d'Alene School District.

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