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Lake Pend Oreille School District copes with public involvement

A couple of hundred people packed the lunch room of Kootenai Elementary school two weeks ago as the Lake Pend Oreille School District met to discuss the adoption of next year's school budget, and to hear the first in a series of scheduled "informal" hearings for district administrators protesting their transfers to other positions next year.
    That public involvement in the budget process resulted in a lengthy meeting - it was 3:15 am before the meeting was recessed to another day and, in a vote surprising to some, a majority of board members presented voted not to adopt the budget presented by the district's Chief Administrator, Steve Battenschlag. Trustees Kathy Chambers, Foster Cline and Keith Contor all voted against budget approval, with board chairman Tom Scott voting in favor - Peter Prandato was not present at the meeting.
    Chambers and Cline both commented that their votes were the result of the amount of community interest in the budgeting process. Battenschlag suggested the board should go ahead and adopt the budget, as one must be adopted by law within 14 days of a publicized hearing, with amendments to the budget at a later date to reflect community concerns. But Chambers stated she didn't want to lose the enthusiasm of the public present, and wanted to give them opportunity for input before a budget was adopted.
    That input began just a few days later, as a group of interested citizens and district employees met in the district's warehouse space to "brainstorm" ideas for resolving a budget that Battenschlag stated was over a million dollars short of providing for district needs.  Those ideas were wide ranging, and included everything from staff cutbacks to outsourcing district programs.
    It was those outsourcing ideas that appear to have driven many district employees to attend the second meeting of this informal budget group, and long-term residents of the area couldn't help comparing today to a time over a decade ago when the community was aroused over the issue of contracting for busing services.
    There was lengthy discussion by the board of trustees at its continuation of the budget hearing last Wednesday on just how this committee would operate. An official "ad-hoc" committee appointed by the board  would, by law, have to post meeting announcements, keep minutes and, most importantly, limit trustee involvement to no more than two trustees at a meeting. "What if there's three of us who want to attend?" Cline asked, only to be warned by district attorney Charles Dodson, "Don't go there." The attendance of three trustees would turn the meeting into an official board meeting; in addition, the board's presence would limit the group's ability to discuss staff funding. Ultimately the board decided to refrain from authorizing a "budget committee" to meet, and instead promised to provide needed information to any group interested in examining budget issues, who could then present their suggestions to the board. The next meeting of this group will be held on July 2 at the First Lutheran Church on Olive St in Sandpoint, beginning at 5:30 pm.
    With that, the board took on discussion of adoption of a budget for the 2002-2003 school year. Chairman Scott commented that his interest was to adopt the budget as proposed, and amend it later as needed. "My concern is we won't have the time to do the kind of job we need to do," if budget adoption was delayed until the board examined all the issues brought to the table. "I think we need to adopt this budget (and) set up a structure to get ongoing community involvement."
    Battenschlag stated that "cuts are being made (and) people want to be involved - that's very understandable." He suggested the district begin to hold monthly budget workshops where interested patrons of the district can learn about different departments and examine their funding. "I'm talking about a longer-term process so we don't get in this position again," he said.
    Dr. Cline stated that one of his concerns was that, "some of the decisions made about hiring and firing are made outside the budget." He suggested that with a budget that's close to 90% salaries and benefits, the process as stands gave board members little leeway when budget time came around. Kathy Chambers concurred.
    "Dealing with the budget is difficult enough," she said. "But with (the situation like this) I feel like my hands are tied."
    One of the board's concerns revolved around how salaries are set. "When did we approve (a position) with certain pay it never had in the past?" he asked. "There has to be some point where the board looks at the finances."
    Cline appeared to be responding to community concerns over the salary set for incoming superintendent Mark Berryhill. His salary of $85,000 a year is a $13,000 jump over the previous superintendent's salary of $72,000 - a change Battenschlag said wasn't a change at all, but just a reflection of days worked. "(Former superintendent) Deal worked 220 days," he said. "Mark will work 260. It's the same daily rate of pay."
    When pressed, Battenschlag said, "all five (board) members have to make the time to come together… at a deeper level," if the board wants input into the salary process.
    In the end, the board voted to adopt Battenschlag's budget as is, with the intent to amend the budget at a later time.

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Landon Otis

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