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Do The Math

Boise School District, advocates prepare for March 13 levy and talk radio pushes back

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Sue Lovelace knows a thing or two about children's birthday parties.

"As a mom, you have a lot of parties," said the mother of three. "And you always know when you've invited too many kids to the party. You've just lost control. That's what I'm thinking of."

Lovelace has been thinking a lot about kids and, in particular, how many kids appropriately fill a schoolroom. That's why she is the face and voice of Friends of Boise Public Schools, an organization formed with one major goal: to see that enough voters in the Tuesday, March 13, levy election for the Boise School District vote "yes."

She's convinced that her birthday party analogy is an accurate portrait of what might happen if the levy doesn't pass. Simply put, she said, if a $14 million, four five-year supplemental tax hike isn't passed, a resulting 15 percent cut to staffing would result in a 15 percent classroom size expansion. The geoscientist said the math was rather simple--fewer teachers equals larger classrooms.

"There are only two choices here," she said. "Either we don't pass this and we watch one of the best school districts in America go into a decline, or we pass it and we keep what we have."

It's difficult to dispute the district's recent academic successes. Its students regularly outperform Idaho and the nation on standardized achievement and advanced-placement tests, and all four of the district's traditional high schools are listed among America's top high schools by The Washington Post, one of only 20 districts in the nation to hold that distinction.

In fact, Jay Mathews, the creator of Newsweek's and the Post's annual High School Challenge List, said Boiseans may not realize how lucky they are.

"The Mountain West has been a disappointment," said Mathews, who has studied educational excellence since the 1990s. "Idaho's record is also poor, with the exception of Boise with all four of its high schools on the list. This is rare for any district of its size nationally, but for Idaho and the Mountain West, it is phenomenal."

That said, the real debate circling the upcoming election is about money--as in how the district spends its (or to be more accurate, its taxpayers') money. Over the last three sessions of the Idaho Legislature, cuts to education have resulted in an approximate $23 million shortfall to the Boise School District. As the recession took its toll on home market values, associated property tax revenues also shrunk. In all, the district took a hit of approximately $35 million.

"We'll probably lose another $4 million in property tax revenues next year," said Nancy Landon, the district's budget and finance administrator.

It has been Landon's unenviable task to take a red pen to proposed budgets over the past three years, reducing programs, services, supplies and most importantly jobs.

"We've cut administration, support staff, secretarial positions, custodians, nursing, music, you name it," said Landon. "But our goal was always to make our cuts as far away from the classroom as possible."

Landon took a long breath.

"Our feeling is we can't go any deeper," she said. "We're not looking to replace anything. We're worried about keeping what we have in place."

A.J. Balukoff knows a bit about budgeting. He's a certified public accountant. More importantly, he knows a bit about school budgets. He's also the president of the Boise School District Board of Trustees.

"Nancy and her team came to us with the numbers, but our first reaction was to go back and make even more cuts," said Balukoff. "Then, but only then, after cutting everything we thought we could cut without impacting class sizes, we realized last spring that we needed to take this to the voters. Originally, we scheduled a vote for August 2011."

But then something significant happened to Boise's next door neighbor, Meridian. On May 17, 2011, more than 16,000 voters went to the polls and more than 9,000 rejected a two-year, $18.5 million-a-year school levy.

"That caught our attention," said Balukoff. "We knew then that we needed to take time to communicate the necessity of this levy and what the consequences would be if we failed. That's the main reason why we moved this vote to March of this year."

Boise Weekly learned that Balukoff and members of the Boise School District even debriefed their counterparts in Meridian and lessons learned from the May vote.

Every person BW spoke with for this story acknowledged that the Meridian election was influenced, to some degree, by opposition from local talk show host Austin Hill, who regularly debated the issue with his afternoon radio audience on KIDO 580 AM.

"I would like some intellectual honesty from the Boise district to stop branding this thing and stop marketing this thing as a levy. It's a tax hike. That is exactly what's weighing in the balance," said Hill, whose program airs weekdays from 3-6 p.m.

BW was invited to talk with Hill and his listeners on air, as part of his Jan. 25 program. Listeners weighed in on the upcoming levy, the school district and the Friends of Boise Schools, which Hill said was spreading "propaganda."

"What I find unfair in the midst of this is that school district employees and friends of the district can get into venues and spread their message with no outside voices at all," said Hill. "They have an impact that the average person cannot."

For nearly 90 minutes, Hill's callers considered the supplemental levy--one in favor, most opposed.

Pete (Hill only asks his callers' first names to participate) said he felt he shouldn't have to pay any property taxes to fund schools, let alone a supplemental levy.

"I have no kids. My neighbor has eight kids, yet we pay the same tax to the school. How is that fair?" asked Pete.

Michelle, a Boise mother, said she thought the teachers in the district were "doing a wonderful job," but wanted to share a conversation that she "had overheard."

"I heard one instructor tell another teacher that he was being pressured," said Michelle. "They're at your kids' Christmas program or your PTO meeting, and they're telling the staff that if they don't tell parents to pass this, they're going to lose their job."

Frank, from Boise, said he was prepared to vote against the levy and didn't think that class size was a critical issue. BW asked him whether he would be comfortable seeing a high school class size balloon from 23 to 29 if the levy didn't pass.

"I would be OK if it went to 39," said Frank. "I don't buy that argument one bit."

With few exceptions, Hill was preaching to the converted.

"I guess I'm the guy that's raising the questions that most people don't want to ask," said Hill.

Lovelace said she has certainly heard some criticism of her efforts to get the levy passed. But she's only heard about Hill's remarks secondhand. She doesn't listen to his show.

"Talk radio is in the entertainment business. They're not in the news business. A lot of what they say isn't factual," said Lovelace. "I ignore it."

But Lovelace and the Friends of Boise Schools aren't taking anything for granted, whether it's opposition over the airwaves or in the public square. Beginning the first week of February, they're launching a full campaign, not unlike an election for public office. Lovelace wouldn't say how much the campaign chest was but confirmed that it was in the neighborhood of $50,000, mostly from individual donations of $5 to $20.

"We have more than 400 people who have volunteered to make phone calls," said Lovelace. "Plus, we'll be canvassing a lot of neighborhoods."

Lovelace said her group was leaning against purchasing any advertising to promote their effort, but it's a pretty safe bet that you won't be hearing any radio spots on the Austin Hill program.

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