Members of the Coeur d’Alene Education Association gather for a building representative training just before the start of school.
When news broke in March that the Coeur d’Alene School District’s $25 million perpetual supplemental levy measure failed at the ballot box, it stunned many in the community and at district offices, but not Aaron Hayes.
As president of the Coeur d’Alene Education Association, Hayes felt voters, educators and even district officials had grown somewhat complacent about the district’s regular levy vote. At the same time, the region’s politics, especially around education, was growing more and more extreme — as evidenced by events at North Idaho College and nearby West Bonner School District.
It was a poisonous mix that left Hayes and a handful of other CEA leaders and members with a sinking feeling about the March vote, which represented no less than 25 percent of the school district’s budget and put more than 300 district employees’ jobs on the line. Despite CEA’s desperate efforts to spur engagement with a community campaign pushing for the levy’s approval, apathy and uncertainty reigned.
The failed vote changed all of that.
The Community Responds
The community was left with the stark reality that their local public schools were about to be gutted. Educators too suddenly seemed to realize that their jobs, or at least the jobs of their colleagues down the hall, could be on the chopping block.
“It personalized for a lot of people what was at stake with that levy vote,” Hayes said. “The programming cuts and building closures the district started talking about with the levy failure woke people up.”
And they responded. Just a two months later, the community celebrated a complete reversal of the March vote. On May 16, a new two-year $25 million levy was approved by voters with 63 percent support and turnout that far eclipsed the March vote.
“I think that was because teachers decided to engage with the community on this,” Hayes said. “As a local, we wanted to make sure everyone in the community was correctly educated and knew what was at stake for real.”
Annetta Jennings, a CEA member and speech therapist at Dalton Elementary and Bryan Elementary, was one educators who stepped up. Jennings has always been relatively active in CEA, but the experience with the levy votes showed her that she needs to do more.
“I went to school in this district, and I know the importance of passing these levies,” said Jennings, whose young son will be going to public school next year. “I want to do everything I can to keep classroom sizes down and keep music and other programming in the classroom for him.”
CEA Members Rally Behind ‘Yes”
After March’s failed vote, CEA’s rank-and-file members and other public education allies quickly rallied behind the community’s “Yes” campaign for the new levy campaign. They canvassed neighborhoods and volunteered to text and call voters to make sure the community knew where educators stood.
“I think without our members and our members’ time, it wouldn’t have been nearly as successful,” said Julia Smulkowski, CEA’s treasurer and a math teacher at Lakes Middle School.
The trick now will be to sustain and expand that level of engagement within the local, said Hayes and Smulkowski said.
Pushing Back Against Extremists at the Polls
In the past, Hayes said, CEA members were most engaged with the local’s work around contract negotiation season, which often went fairly well given CEA’s strong relationship with the school district. But Hayes and Smulkowski are hopeful this year’s levy experience encourages members to deepen their engagement by getting involved with local school board elections and even lobbying state lawmakers in Boise.
The local endorsed candidates in November’s local school board races for the first time in several years and their preferred candidates won two seats on the panel. Hayes and CEA are hopeful this kind of leadership from CEA spurs other allies from the “Yes” campaign to stay engaged in school politics as well.
“Locals across north Idaho have shied away from being political,” Smulkowski said “But endorsing a school board candidate isn’t being political, it’s doing what’s best for kids.”
Hayes is a realist about the political situation facing public education in Idaho. He understands the complacency and apathy that led to March’s levy defeat. He knows that pushing back against political extremism is the longer, more difficult path for professionals who only want to teach. After all, they can find better salaries and a political climate more friendly to public education just a few miles away over the Washington border. He was frank about his own frustration with the remarkable amount of work it took just maintain the status quo.
“We had to spend an insane amount energy and time for the minimum so we can continue on the same as we have been doing,” he said.
But the engagement he saw when the chips were down for local schools gives him hope and pride. Educators, he said, stepped up not only for their students and colleagues, they stepped up for the community.
“I’m very proud of the teachers that stood up and defended their community,” said Hayes, who hopes CEA can become a community anchor that keeps the community from slipping back into its complacency about their local school politics. “Just as we fought for the levy, we need to fight for good school board members. We need to work closely with the district beyond our contract negotiations to ensure their policies allow our schools to move forward. We need to get more involved at the state level through the IEA.”
Such engagement will make CEA a “more organic force” benefitting not only local schools, but the broader community.
“If we can start really building on this spring’s engagement, then we can really start getting things accomplished,” he said.