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Education

Rural Idaho Community Divided Over Failed School Levy

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A school superintendent in northern Idaho says the reason his district hasn't had music classes in more than a year, and will soon switch to virtual gym classes, is as much about the difficulty of attracting and retaining qualified teachers in rural areas as it is about funding.

The story of Lapwai School District's  funding problems has been picked up by just about every news outlet in the state.

The Lewiston Tribune reported the district on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation, hasn’t had music classes for more than a year, and will have to switch to online physical education classes because of two failed levy attempts since May.

Lapwai superintendent David Aiken says that report doesn’t tell the entire story.

Aiken admits the district is struggling financially, he says they started making cuts even before the levies failed.

“Several positions have been absorbed or eliminated including four and a half teachers, a mental health counselor, three para-educators,  a bookkeeper, an attendance secretary and a bus driver,” Aiken says.

He says asking voters to approve levies was a last resort to try to maintain existing programs. But opponents of the levies say the district has plenty of money to provide a good education.

Juliaetta, Idaho resident Jim Finley says the district did not do a good job explaining why it needed extra money or what it planned to do with it if voters said yes.

Finley stops short of saying the district doesn’t manage its money well but he questions many spending decisions.

“There are programs in the school right now that are funded with tax money that are not part of any normal curriculum,” Finley says. “And we’re not sure why we’re paying for those. One of the classes is teaching the Nez Perce language. I have absolutely nothing against learning that language, [but] I don’t think it’s part of a school curriculum.”

Finley says there has been tension in the community since the district first proposed a levy. Aiken says that tension is largely divided on racial lines.

Because most of the district’s Native Americans live on tax exempt land, the non-native population Aiken says, would have had to pick up most of the tab if a levy had passed. Finley says his property taxes would have gone up by $1,300 a year.

Aiken blames federal and state budget cuts for district financial woes. Unlike most Idaho districts, much of Lapwai’s funding comes directly from the federal government. That’s because most of the district’s land is on a reservation. But that means Lapwai actually has more money per student than the average Idaho district.

Aiken says in the past, the district used the extra money to maintain small class sizes but he says their funding advantage is shrinking. He says now they’ve had to increase student-teacher ratio to the state average.

“If you look at small rural districts, their cost per student typically is higher than you would see in a larger district like Lewiston, Boise or Meridian,” Aiken says.

Find reporter Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

Copyright 2014 Boise State Public Radio

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