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Northside first target for district budget woes

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Northside first target for district budget woes

A dramatic loss of state funding makes district view closing Northside Elementary in a new light

The Lake Pend Oreille School District board of trustees needs to cut expenses. They would also like to fill up the newly constructed classrooms at Kootenai Elementary. If Northside Elementary possessed a neck, it would surely be tingling as the board looks at how those two desires dovetail, if only they close this rural school out on Colburn-Culver Road.

Like government entities, and the people whose tax dollars fund those entities everywhere, the school district is looking at tightening a belt on what it feels is an already slim figure. Their worst case projections predict having to cut nearly two-and-a-half million dollars out of next year’s school budget, pretty much ten percent of the whole.

Not that cuts can be made from the whole budget. The district’s general fund, where most “discretionary” funding can be found, is just 20.4 million. Other funds, such as levy dollars and federal funding, have a whole bunch of strings tied to how that money can be spent. And in the general fund, nearly 80 percent of those dollars are used to pay the staff who keep the district running: teachers in the classrooms, drivers on the bus, and various administrators to keep up with all the required paperwork.

Closing Northside is not the answer to their budget woes, as the board and administration have been quick to point out. If it happens, it will be just the beginning of a long and painful process that will impact children throughout the 11-school district. Because the approximate $158,000 that closing the school would save still leaves them 2.34 million dollars short of their goal.

But there’s another part of the picture the board must consider, and that’s the result of keeping a long-delayed promise to the parents of children who live in Kootenai. Voter support has allowed the district to finally provide a full-service elementary school in Kootenai, one with the potential to house 500 students each and every day. Current enrollment at the school, however, is only 130 students. Therefore closing Northside and busing those students to Kootenai appears to be a win/win in terms of the school district’s balance sheet: filling the empty rooms at Kootenai while making a start at the reductions needed in next year’s budget.

Of course, nothing is that easy. “We’re not anywhere near making a decision on this,” said Vickie Pfeifer, chairman of the district’s board of trustees. “Closing a school is a major step to take.”

Those with ties to Northside certainly agree; people like John Rourke, who was principal at the school for 17 years prior to his retirement in 2008.

“I can understand the position they’re in,” he offered and, as a former administrator who worked in the district during times when money was much tighter than it is today, he probably can sympathize more than most. Still, he doesn’t think closing the school is the answer to their financial woes.

“I have to question whether you save enough to be worthwhile,” he said, pointing out that $158,000, while a lot of money, is a relatively small amount compared to what they need to cut. But more important than  that to John is the message implicit in closing a school that’s served its community for almost 57 years.

“A decision to close Northside would end a way of life for people in North Idaho,” he said. “In that area, people have chosen a way of life that’s different from anywhere else.” The Northside community, in fact, is the school—there is no business district, no subdivisions of houses to define the place called Northside. People in this area of North Idaho live on acreage, not lots, and the combination of trees and terrain prevent most from any glimpse of their neighbors. Yet a community they are, and it’s demonstrated best within the doors of the elementary school, where generations of area families have sent their children for their education, and where each successive generation of parents has pitched in to create an active, vibrant and supportive community for the school.

“It’s like a family here,” offered school secretary Nancy Rinaldi, who’s been in that position since 1991. “Most of the staff have been here for a long time.” And the families of students as well—this year at the school, one student represents the fourth generation of the family to attend school at Northside.

Mel Davis, an active parent whose child is the first generation of their family to be a Northside student, tried to explain what the school means to its community.

“You have all these different kinds of people who live out here,” she said, “from all parts of the spectrum. Yet within the school, everyone is on an equal footing. We all come together in support of our students.

“There is something special here that’s hard to explain. Part of it’s the staff—they always seem to go above and beyond what you would expect. And in my experience, the school has a level of involvement from the parents and the community that goes beyond the norm.”

It’s not just the atmosphere that makes Mel supportive of the school, however; it’s also the results of that atmosphere. “Obviously, they’re doing something right,” she said, and pointed to the school’s position as one of the top schools in the state of Idaho.

Karen Bishop, whose children are third-generation Northside attendees, agrees that there’s something important offered in a small school setting. “If someone who doesn’t belong comes into Northside, everyone knows it,” she said. “It’s small enough that my girls know everybody,” and, indeed, everyone knows her girls. “Teachers can give more personal attention to my kids,” because those teachers have known them as students long before they ever have them in class. “That’s something worth keeping.”

Davis calls for people to put on their thinking caps on behalf of the school. “Just 50 cuts of $3,000 could save our school. We need the community to start thinking of better ways to save money.”

For decades the district has spoken of “economies of scale” and the difficulty of maintaining rural schools, and the various communities have responded that they want those rural schools to continue. This is the first time that commitment is being challenged, the first time that the idea of closing a school has moved beyond muttering to a discussion item for the school board.

As far as filling classrooms at Kootenai Elementary, most supporters of keeping Northside open feel that students should be shifted from Washington and Farmin/Stidwell to relieve overcrowding at those schools, which was the intent stated in the levy where voters supported additional building at Kootenai.

Although still not close to making a decision, Superintendent Dick Cvitanich said that discussing a closure is important. “Given our budget situation, that’s a potential we must consider. We could have kept it sort of quiet while we looked at the information, but we didn’t want to do that, didn’t want to come out later and surprise people.”

Idaho law gives the school board the authority to “discontinue” a school, in Idaho Code 33-511. If the board chooses to do so, it must decide and make notification of the decision no later than July 1 this year. At that point, five registered voters within the district may petition that the discontinuation go before the voters for approval; an election must be held within 14 days after that point. Should a simple majority (fifty percent plus one) vote against discontinuing the school, then the board would be prevented from doing so.

 

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Landon Otis

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Lake Pend Oreille School District, funding, Northside Elementary

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