SCHOOL BOARD PONDERS LEVY

Maureen Dolan reports:  The need to ask voters to approve a supplemental levy early next year and a looming $3 million budget shortfall have Coeur d’Alene school board members and the district’s administration taking a harder than usual look at the district’s finances.

Trustees met Monday for a workshop to acquaint the board’s newest members, Jim Hightower and Ann Seddon, with the budget and the budgeting process as they begin considering how much money they will ask voters to approve at the polls.

“Are there areas in there that we can find maybe a new way of looking at things that free up some revenue to allow us to perhaps look at a reduction in a supplemental levy amount?” said board chair Tom Hamilton.

The district’s $60.2 million annual general fund budget includes $12.9 million in property taxes representing one year of a two-year supplemental levy voters approved in 2011. That levy expires at the end of June. Voters will be asked to approve a replacement levy in March, and between now and January a levy amount must be determined.

Voter-approved supplemental levies are in place in districts throughout Idaho, and are used to fill the gaps between state funding and the cost of running school districts.

The Coeur d’Alene district relies on levies to pay for student activities and athletics, salaries for teacher aides and other support staff, and various programs for academically advanced learners and those who are struggling.

The funds from these supplemental levies can only be used to support a school district’s maintenance and operations costs. They cannot be used to build or make major renovations to school facilities, so districts must ask taxpayers to support other ballot measures if they need to go into debt to finance buildings. The funds from the $32.7 million bond Coeur d’Alene voters passed on Aug. 28 can only be used on the building projects it was requested for. No part of those funds can be used on any school operations costs.

This upcoming supplemental levy campaign will be the first for all the trustees now sitting on the board. Hamilton and Terri Seymour took office after the 2011 levy election and Hightower and Seddon were just appointed this year. The five-member board is down a member since Trustee Jim Purtee’s Nov. 15 resignation. They hope to have a new trustee appointed by January.

The $3 million shortfall the district is facing exists because those funds originally came into the district’s budget as one-time federal stimulus dollars.

Superintendent Hazel Bauman said the $3 million gap will remain even if the $12.9 million supplemental levy is replaced at the same level.

“If we were to reduce the supplemental levy by $1 million, there would be a $4 million shortfall. If we were to reduce the supplemental levy by $2 million, it would be a $5 million shortfall,” Bauman said. “So we need to be really cognizant of that by balancing the needs of the district with the needs of the taxpayers.”

Bauman said district taxpayers have always been supportive. She pointed to the $12.9 million per year that voters approved in 2011. That amount includes a $5 million annual increase over the levy it replaced. Voters approved a facilities levy to build KTEC, the new professional-technical high school on the prairie. The taxpayers agreed at the polls last summer to finance a $32.7 million bond to renovate five aging schools and modernize the infrastructure of schools throughout the district.

“Our community continues to amaze me. Their largesse and their support of our school system is beyond anything I could have ever dreamed about … Having said that, I don’t think it’s an infinite wealth,” Bauman said.

During Monday’s workshop, Hamilton said the supplemental levy currently represents about 23 percent of the district’s general fund budget.

“That’s a serious number if you consider the fact that there may come a day that the community doesn’t give that support, so when we look at the supplemental levy number … and keeping very much in mind what Hazel said, which is that our community overall is overwhelmingly supportive of education, but I do believe that tolerance probably has a limit,” Hamilton said.

Several budget areas were discussed as potential spots where changes could possibly be made to increase revenue: restructuring the employee benefits package, privatizing the school district’s transportation service, furlough days and reducing the number of employees in the district.

Hamilton said the trustees are also going to take a look at the recommendations made in 2008 by a finance advisory committee for additional ideas.

Wendell Wardell, now the district’s chief operating officer, served on that committee as a private citizen.

During Monday’s meeting Wardell said that 17 European countries are now in recession and economists think that continent’s downturn will “come ashore” in the U.S. next year.

“It is possible economic conditions will be working against us as we move forward. That’s something everyone here should keep in mind,” Wardell said.

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