By DAVID GUNTER
SANDPOINT — Every couple of years, gaping holes in the state’s school funding formula force school districts all over Idaho — some 46 of them lined up this Tuesday — to ask voters for money. Many of those requests are for either bond issues or plant facilities levies aimed at funding new schools or updating old ones.
Here in the Lake Pend Oreille School District, Tuesday’s levy replaces the current one that falls off the tax rolls in June. Stated another way — the March 14 ballot measure for local voters is not an additional levy; it is meant to keep school funding in place when the books close on the one now in place.
Not that LPOSD hasn’t mounted its own plant facility efforts in the past. An attempt in that direction last fall resulted in a stinging rebuke at the polls and sent proponents of the plan back to the drawing board. It was a hard lesson for the district, as voters signaled they still favor taking care of the physical buildings that house our schools, but were not prepared to shoulder the cost all at once.
Tuesday’s vote is different. And it’s made more challenging by the confusion caused by the aforementioned facilities-related ballot measure that failed last August.
“Running that levy came at a cost to us and we’ve made every effort to sit down with people and explain how the March 14 levy is different from the plant facilities proposal,” said Shawn Woodward, superintendent for the school district.
To clear up any confusion, LPOSD scheduled 12 public meetings and hosted another 20 small group public sessions, not to mention a number of one-on-ones with interested individuals.
“This is important work,” said Woodward. “At the end of the day, I want people to vote based on complete information, so I’ve met with more people this go-round than the last two levy elections combined.”
He pretty much had to. The combination of making the distinction between the two types of levies and an aggressive — it would not be an overstatement to describe it as nasty — anti-levy social media campaign meant that the superintendent was left, figuratively speaking, juggling the valid questions of pro-levy voters and fence sitters while simultaneously tap dancing to put out the brush fires of purposeful disinformation.
With that in mind, it might be simplest to address this upcoming levy in terms of fact and fiction.
Let’s tackle that plant facilities bugaboo first. In an interview with Woodward, the August proposal was likened to a Hail Mary pass — great if it happens to get reeled in, not so much if it is picked off or batted down. And, boy, was that last one ever batted down.
Question: Would the district roll out the same proposal, given the outcome?
“No, not at all,” the superintendent said. “We all have perfect vision in hindsight. That amount was too large — too much all at once. As a district, we and the school board learned a lot from that. And we would absolutely do things differently now.”
Q: Why is Tuesday’s ballot measures being referred to as both a “supplemental” and an “instructional” levy?
“In years past, we’ve added the word ‘instructional’ because the largest budget line — 82 percent — is for staff,” Woodward said. “It goes right into our schools to fund the work we do with our kids.”
Q: Does that mean the district plans to add more staff?
“It’s not an increase in staffing, it’s a replacement levy for our current level of staffing,” the superintendent said. “We are asking to add one elementary counselor in the district — we now have just one of our own for roughly 2,000 elementary students.”
Q: What about the persistent rumor that the district plans to close its smaller schools in outlying communities?
“There are all kinds of falsehoods on social media right now — blatant, misleading information — saying, ‘The superintendent wants to close these schools,’” said Woodward. “We’ve never said anything like that. Our plan is to keep those schools open and operating, because we believe they are the heartbeat of our smaller communities.
“But I continue to hear there’s a ‘grand plan’ to close them down,” he went on. “That’s not true — our plan is to be responsive to those communities and keep them open.”
Q: How do you answer people who insist that the district should make do with what it has and stop asking for tax dollars?
“When people say ‘the district should live within its means,’ I point out that one-third of our revenue comes from local sources — local tax dollars — so we are living within our means,” Woodward said.
Q: You make the case that a third of the budget comes from those dollars and that, without such funding, equally one-third of the district’s staffing budget goes out the window. What’s your response to those who claim the specter of staff layoffs is nothing more than a scare tactic?
“Not so,” said Woodward. “There’s been an effort by some to say we’re making these number up, but you just have to do the math — one-third of our staffing budget is at stake and we felt strongly that we need to be completely honest about where cuts would have to be made.”
Q: OK, but has the district ever really followed through on such cuts?
“Two years ago, we kept the levy amount flat and told the public that we were going to reduce staffing by $1.2 million — and that’s what we did,” Woodward said. “This year’s target for staff cuts is $600,000. If enrollment comes in above expectations, the budget would allow for us to hire back some of those positions.”
Q: If voters approve this measure on Tuesday, where does the money go — teachers or administrators?
“It’s teachers; certificated staff,” said the superintendent.
Q: You said the largest budget line is for that staff. What else would be funded through levy dollars?
“Extracurricular activities,” he said. “The board chose many years ago to fund this through local levy dollars. This allows all students to participate, regardless of socio-economic background.”
Q: Why is that important? Why should taxpayers even care about funding anything outside of readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmatic?
“Part of the success of our students in the classroom are a direct result of offering extracurricular activities and it contributes to a healthier community,” Woodward said. “The board of trustees and district staff believe in the importance of extracurricular activities in the development of our students. The benefits of participation in these activities are extremely positive. There is a direct correlation between participation in extracurricular activities and positive social behavior. There is also a positive correlation to academic achievement, positive attitudes towards school and completion of a high school diploma.”
Q: Social media opposition seems to have played a big role in the lead-up to Tuesday’s vote and, as you describe it, much of what is being posted is not factual. Have you tried to reach out to those people and set the record straight?
“I would say that 99.9 percent of the people spreading misinformation on social media have never bothered to sit down with us,” said Woodward. “I’ve called many of them and invited them to, but they say their minds are made up and they don’t need to talk to the school district.”
Q: Even though this levy replaces the one that runs out in June, there is an increase in the requested amount this time. How does that impact the average homeowner?
“The increase would amount to 50 cents a month on a $250,000 home,” the superintendent said. “Roughly $200,000 of the overall increase is there to offset a loss in federal funds we receive.”
Q: Over the past few levy elections, voters have been supportive of the district’s funding requests. What’s your closing argument that they should continue on that track?
“We’re a high-performing district with great staff and we wouldn’t be performing at nearly this level without our community support,” the superintendent said. “Strong, supportive communities create strong schools.”
Supplemental levy by the numbers
• Funds one-third of all district staff; approximately 300 full-time and part-time staff positions. Supports sound class size and secondary electives.
• Funds all academic and athletic extracurricular activities.
• Funds all curriculum and instructional materials, as well as professional development and instructional mentoring
• Funds technology internal network upgrades, fiber network implementation, hardware, software licenses and entire technology department staff.
• Funds teaching and learning and student wellness. Extended full day kindergarten, Clark Fork Junior/Senior High track program, elementary counseling, and certified nursing assistant.
• Current instructional levy is $7,883,742 for 2017; Replacement levy is $8,300,000 for 2018; $8,700,000 for 2019
• This levy replaces the expiring levy; it is not added on top.
• This is not a permanent levy.