SANDPOINT — You could get whiplash talking to Pend Oreille School District Superintendent Shawn Woodward about the just how much rides on the March 12 school district replacement levy vote, aimed at providing approximately $7.8 million per year to the district budget n 2014 and 2015.
One the one hand, Woodward can list the impressive academic improvements the district has tallied, despite ongoing staff cuts and budget tightening, both before and since he took the post about eight months ago.
On the other, he is candid about what’s at stake if this replacement levy fails: One-third of staffers would face job cuts; virtually all extracurricular activities would have to be axed; some outlying schools would be closed and consolidated into larger facilities where bigger classrooms overflow their limits and spill into portables.
Are things really that dire? We asked Woodward to answer that question, as well as whether the district has shown rigor in its efforts to make cuts up to this point, in the following interview.
Q. Were discussions about this upcoming replacement levy the first thing you had to face when you took the job as school superintendent?
A. Yes, that was actually part of the interview process. The board members asked me how confident I would be, as superintendent, running a levy campaign. That was literally the first thing that was asked of me behind closed doors during the interview.
Q. How much time does a superintendent have to put into something like this as we move closer to the actual vote?
A. A percentage would be tough to arrive at, but I can tell you that, in the last six weeks, I’ve given close to 35 levy presentations. Those usually amount anywhere from half an hour to 90 minutes, dependent upon the kinds of questions people ask and the kind of dialog we have afterward.
A lot of time — more than I would have guessed coming into it — but it’s certainly worth every minute that I spend, because it’s not just about passing a levy, it’s about educating people in the community about what kinds of things we’re doing we’re doing when it comes to our bottom line. And our bottom line is student learning.
Q. In keeping with that bottom line, business-related approach, what do you say to people who ask, in effect, ‘How is this money being spent? What has the school district done for me lately?’
A. That’s a great question and, if it isn’t asked, I always make sure that I share this, because the community should be proud of it, as should the entire staff and the families of the Lake Pend Oreille School District.
Over the last six years, every year has seen an increase in the Idaho State Assessment given in both math and reading. Ten out of 11 of our schools are ranked either 4- or 5-star by the state department of education — that’s one of the highest percentages of any school district in the state of Idaho.
This past year, Sandpoint High School had the highest scores in the state on the SAT exam for both math and reading. For the last five years, Clark Fork High School has been recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of America’s Best High Schools, so they’re obviously performing at a very high level.
To do so well at the secondary level, we have to have good things happening from pre-school on up. As an example of success at the elementary level, Southside Elementary School was recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School in 2011 — one of only 320 schools given that award out of 38,000 schools — because they have high poverty levels, but also high achievement levels.
Q. What has been the toughest audience you’ve faced in terms of an entrenched feeling that, no matter what you tell them, they won’t support this replacement levy?
A. It’s hard to categorize that as far as any demographic, but we have people out there who are opposed to these kinds of taxes, in general. They believe the state’s not doing its duty in adequately funding education and they believe that it’s time for local tax dollars to be eliminated when it comes to supporting public education. And no matter how we’re doing fiscally or educationally, it’s hard to convince those people otherwise.
Another group that is typically opposed is people who are on fixed incomes who either no longer have children in the school system or never have had children in our schools, so they don’t have any personal connection to the teachers and coaches or what’s going on our classrooms.
Q. How much of the district budget currently comes from state and federal funds and how much from the local level?
Roughly one-third of our operating budget comes from local tax dollars and the rest of it comes from the federal and state levels.
As an example, over the last two years alone, the state level continues to adjust what they believe we need to provide an adequate education for our students.
Two years ago, we received $1.6 million more from the state and yet we have the same number of students here that we had two years ago. It’s the same from the federal side — two years ago we received over $1 million more from the federal government with the same number of students. That funding is continuing to decline and we’re definitely feeling that in the school district.
Q. The current levy is approximately $6.8 million for 2013 and the replacement levy is approximately $1 million more per year over the next two years. Why is there a need for that additional money and where do you foresee it being spent?
A. There are some misconceptions about why we’re asking for that increased amount. It’s not to add new programs or ‘spend more money,’ if you will. It’s actually to allow us to make fewer cuts. Even if we pass this levy on March 12, we’re still looking at cutting from half a million dollars to $1.2 million out of our budget, dependent upon what happens in this legislative session and what our funding is going to look like.
We know with certainty that we are going to continue to receive less funding from both the state and federal levels in the next fiscal year.
Another thing to consider is that, over the last two years, the board of trustees has decided to dip into their fund balance reserves to avoid making such drastic cuts. There were cuts made last year, the year before and the year before that.
But the last two years, because they believed that if we continue to cut, it’s going to start having a large impact on student learning, they went into their reserve account.
At this point, our board of trustees has decided that we can’t keep doing that or we’re not going to have a savings account any more. So we’ve asked for a little bit more in this levy election and we’ll still have to make some significant cuts.
Q. What other myths and misconceptions seem to hang in there despite your best efforts to set the record straight?
A. One of the largest is the question about whether we have made any cuts in the past. People say, “In these economic times, we expect you to make cuts just like the rest of us.” And I agree with that — we need to be fiscally responsible just like everyone else.
What people are surprised to hear is that, in the last five years, we’ve had relatively flat enrollment, yet we’ve cut 117 positions out of our operating budget.
We have cut year after year after year, but you start becoming concerned about, “At what point is the tipping point where we start providing an education that is not OK with this community and that would impact student learning?’”
As far as another misconception, I don’t know that we’ve done a good enough job of tooting our own horn in this school district when it comes to the kind of education that the students are truly getting. I believe that the money is being spent very well and appropriately when it comes to impacting student learning.
And a third misconception is the concern that, by voting ‘yes’ on this levy, that it could become a permanent tax. The truth of the matter with that is, if after seven consecutive years, greater than 20 percent of your general fund revenue is coming from tax dollars, the board of trustees could decide to go out for an indefinite term supplemental levy. But we would have to pass this upcoming levy, we’d have to run another levy two years from now and pass that levy and then at the end of that seventh year, the board could decide to go out for that indefinite levy, but that would require a separate vote to make it permanent.
Q. Is there any padding in the amount being requested from voters?
A. There’s no padding, because, if we pass this levy, we still have to cut between a half a million and $1.2 million. So we’re in a cutting environment, for sure. Eighty-five percent of our budget goes to salaries and benefits, so it will mean that we’re cutting people, even if we pass. The moving target is not knowing how deep the cuts will have to go. It will be much clearer in April when some of those decisions are made at the state and federal levels.
Q. We’ve been tossing a lot of numbers around — how does all of this affect the people who work in the district?
A. Literally 33 percent of our budget comes from this levy, so one-third of our staff are dependent upon us passing it. If we were not to pass this levy, we would have to potentially — well, not potentially, we would have to lay off people. If we didn’t have that money coming in, one-third of our staff would not be working here next year. It’s hard to determine where that would fall and what that would look like, but that would be our starting point.
As far as all of our academic and athletic extracurricular activities, the after-school activities, those would be gone. That’s 100 percent funded through the levy.
We have 11 schools right now that are very spread out, geographically, which provides a challenge, fiscally. People have spoke loud and clear in our smaller communities that our rural schools are very important to them — Hope, Clark Fork. Without this levy, we cannot operate those small, rural schools, because we wouldn’t be able to fund them.
Q. Would that force the district into consolidating those outlying schools into much larger centrally located schools with larger classes?
A. Yes, because if we lose one-third of our staff, that’s going to have a significant impact on class size. Also, we would be running fewer schools. To have facilities big enough to accommodate that, we would have to consolidate our services, start bringing portables in and things like that.
Without those levy dollars, you would not be able to recognize our school district. It would not look the same.
Q. On the positive side, there seems to be strong local support for teachers in particular and public education in general. Have you found that to be the case when you’re out in the community?
A. For the most part, in the 35 or so levy presentations I’ve given, I’ve found that the critical mass of people are very supportive of the educators in this community. I think people have an understanding that this school district is very different from many districts in the fact that the administration, the teachers’ association and the board of trustees have a very positive relationship and really do work together in the name of providing a good environment for our students.
The way that people work together to solve problems has been very positive and student-centered. I’ve been very impressed by that.
A. Are you optimistic that this replacement levy will succeed?
A. I’m very optimistic about it passing. I believe that people have a real good understanding of what this not only means for the kids of this community, but also everyone else when it comes to economic stability and continuing to make this a community that people want to come to — and stay in. They get that quality education is a big part of that.
With that said, we need to continue turning rocks over to find people who do not have a great understanding of what we’re all about and what we’re doing, so that they can make an educated decision on March 12.