Great things are happening every day in classrooms throughout the Coeur d’Alene School District. At all times our focus must be on the quality of teaching and learning that prepares students with the knowledge, skills and dispositions they will need for their future success.
Keeping that focus has been a challenge at a time public education in this country is under attack. We are seeing that up close here in Coeur d’Alene. Any number of reasons might explain why this is happening now. Rather than focus on the motives or agendas of those behind these attacks, our obligation and commitment is to provide our community an accurate and straightforward account of what is -- and is not -- happening in Coeur d’Alene Public Schools. Misinformation and distortions spread easily and quickly on social media, undermining trust in our public institutions. Our objective here is to answer questions this community has about their school district, its leadership, and its strategic plan, academic initiatives and systems of support.
(Pictured: Dr. Shon Hocker, Superintendent of Coeur d'Alene Public Schools)
Critical Race Theory
Whatever you may have heard about this controversial academic concept, please know this: critical race theory (CRT) is not taught in Coeur d’Alene Public Schools. It is not embedded in our curriculum nor is it included in any of our operating plans or staff training programs. It hasn’t found its way into our school district, nor has it even been considered, period. Idaho’s recently passed “Dignity and Nondiscrimination in Public Education Act” prohibits public schools from directing or compelling a student to “personally affirm, adopt, or adhere” to any of the tenets of CRT. But we didn’t need Idaho law to tell us this. We already had an existing non-discrimination policy that prohibits the differential treatment of anyone based on their sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin. If that were to happen in any classroom here, the District administration would move quickly to correct the situation.
So why has CRT become such a topic of national conversation? The questions and concerns are fueled relentlessly by the tactics of national and state organizations that aim to discredit or defund public education. Some community members we hear from pick up on these messages and either repeat them, point to an experience from their previous city or state, or are confused by the rhetoric and are additionally concerned. No one wants their child to feel unsafe at school, for any reason. When something as complex, ambiguous and obscure as CRT is repeatedly championed as the next big threat to our children, it gets attention. Coeur d’Alene Public Schools does not -- in theory, action or practice -- make space for CRT in our classrooms.
How is our curriculum created and resources chosen? All curriculum, by law, must align with Idaho State Content Standards, which are first approved by our state legislators. Resources are chosen to help us teach those standards using a thorough and open process involving opportunity for public review and comment. What is woven into the curriculum are thoughtful ideas to help teachers address individual students’ learning needs. This is the work of teaching and learning. This is what we will continue to address and improve upon in service of our students.
Masks/Vaccinations (COVID protocols)
The district does not have a mask mandate in place. We highly encourage staff and students to wear masks at school, but do not require them.
The District has not discussed nor considered a vaccination mandate for staff or students, and there are no plans to do so. Any suggestion that the School Board or its District administration have promoted COVID vaccine mandates is incorrect.
The role of the school district is simply to report results of required school vaccinations (such as for chickenpox, measles and whooping cough) to the state. Local school boards do not have the authority to require a specific vaccination in order for a student to attend school. State law also provides for a “vaccine opt out” for those families not wanting to immunize their students.
Portrait of a Graduate
Three years ago, we started a conversation with our community by asking, “What do you want our students to embody when they graduate from our schools?” Hundreds of business owners, civic leaders, nonprofits, parents, students and other stakeholders rose to the challenge by engaging in this conversation over several months and in multiple sessions. The result was this community’s Portrait of a Graduate, an entirely unique statement that reflects our community values across six areas: Content Knowledge, Communication, Creativity, Critical Thinking, Collaboration and Character.
The purpose of the Portrait of a Graduate is to improve the learning experience of our students and help them meet the challenges of post-high school education, emerging fields of study, career opportunities, new technologies, and community involvement. We invite you to take a close look at the six C’s that this community highlights in the Portrait of a Graduate. “Content Knowledge” covers core topics like math, science and reading, but also essential skills such as personal finance, planning and organization, time management, and effective study habits. For “Critical Thinking” we emphasize how to pose questions, conduct sound research, verify facts, analyze information, and solve complex problems. A sampling of other skills found in the Portrait of a Graduate include learning from failure; working as a team; embracing leadership roles; presenting in front of others; engaging in productive conversations; and accepting constructive feedback. None of this is a new concept to learning. We all experienced these lessons labeled as "character traits" or "behaviors" in our own schooling.
We have identified our community’s current priorities and elevated them to a level that makes a strong commitment to equip our graduates with skills and abilities our community has identified as important as they pursue success in their chosen paths upon completing their K-12 journey
Equity in Education
At the heart of public education is the belief that all children deserve access to a free and appropriate education. Is it enough to open doors, provide a desk, and hire a teacher? Most families would say no. What about providing transportation, or a hot lunch for those who can’t afford one or providing a variety of courses that vary in level of difficulty? What about providing Sports, clubs, after-school tutoring? Enticing, relevant electives and advanced learning opportunities? Educators within Coeur d’Alene Public Schools work very hard, going above and beyond the “basics,” and with the support of our community, we strive diligently to meet the needs of each and every student.
We owe it to our students and our community to ensure our work is student-centered, and student-focused. Our equity framework helps guide our intentions, reminding us to pause and consider how to open doors for all children. Equity work takes our good work and makes it better.
The District’s 2019 Curriculum Audit brought to the surface several specific issues of equity within our district, including access to full-day kindergarten; resources from classroom to classroom and school to school; the different graduation requirements at our high schools; and differences noted in the quality of learning experiences and rigor offered to students. In addition, the audit revealed that if we didn’t make meaningful changes, it would be unlikely to improve outcomes for our students who qualify for special education services, who speak English as a second language, or those with economic difficulties. These are just a few examples revealed within the audit.
We created the Equity Framework to articulate our vision and commitment to improving outcomes and experiences for each student, and to remove barriers to learning. The curriculum audit stated, “Ensuring academic success means providing instruction and resources to students based on their individual needs, not based on what works for the majority of students or even a formula or standardized procedure.” (Page 251)
In the short amount of time we’ve had the equity framework, what has this commitment to equity meant for our students and families?
- Free full-day kindergarten. We’ve moved from a system of half-day kindergarten for some, tuition-based full-day kindergarten for some, free all-day kindergarten for few to FULL-DAY tuition-free kindergarten for all.
- No more forced transfers. We recognized that forcing a student to be bussed from their neighborhood school to a school across town took a large amount of instructional time out of that student’s day. We have been able to prioritize neighborhood schooling and no longer turn a child away from the school for which they are zoned.
- High School Alignment. We are working with stakeholders and experts to create a common high school schedule and graduation requirements.
Coeur d’Alene School District is committed to providing equitable opportunities in our schools. As a result, we are making better decisions, talking more about student outcomes and experiences, and working to remove barriers to student learning. We truly believe each student deserves to feel seen, valued, loved, and challenged to learn when they enter our schools.
Social and Emotional Learning
Social and emotional learning (SEL) may sound new, but these are widely accepted lessons that students have learned in school for many decades. In the earliest grades, teachers and other supportive adults have always incorporated lessons on being polite, keeping hands to themselves, how to share, resolving conflicts, being a good teammate, winning with dignity, losing with grace, how to recognize when they are upset, and how to calm themselves, among other topics. In our middle and high schools, similar lessons are taught, appropriate for those ages. Some teachers talk about peer pressure, how to make good and safe choices, how to resolve conflict, how to negotiate needs and how to manage stress. Recent research shows us that students who understand their own tendencies can better manage their emotions and their stress in productive ways. When in control, students tend to do better in school and better in life in general.
Students who have better social skills can get along with all types of people, even those different from them, and they know how to handle conflict more successfully, at school and later in the workplace. We are simply trying to organize learning so students have lessons that are more personal, organized and consistent. Recently, one elementary school taught students about apologies and the steps to giving a good apology. Another has taught lessons on what it means to be a good friend. Currently we are working on a lesson for middle school students about respect: What does it look and sound like in the hallway and in the classroom? And what does it mean to be respectful to authority? We think these lessons are useful to students and enhance what parents teach at home. Being responsible, caring for others, being kind, respecting yourself and others, being a good citizen, and becoming a helpful member of the learning community are universal principles we all can support. We strongly believe that morals and political beliefs are best left to the family to teach.
The school district’s budget for the 2021-22 school year shows a $6.1 million deficit. This deficit is not the result of mismanagement or neglect, but is the result of two primary factors: a reduction in financial support from the state; and a decrease in enrollment over the past year that further reduced state funding. Due to the way the Idaho Legislature cut education funding each of the past two years, every school district in Idaho is in the same position: relying on their federal COVID relief funding to balance the budget. In fact, legislative documents show that funding cuts were made with the rationale that federal relief funds should be used to backfill those state cuts.
Our District budget has a track record of stability. COVID-caused deficits are the first instance of deficit spending since the 2016-17 fiscal year. District leadership has carefully utilized the federal COVID relief funds we have received in order to balance the budget while providing the least amount of an impact to the classroom. In our continuing commitment to transparency and accountability, our monthly expenditures and personnel costs, as well as our annual budgets, are posted on our district website.
This information is provided as a response to recent calls for a forensic audit of the School District’s finances.
Forensic audits are typically conducted in preparation for legal proceedings when illegal financial activity has taken place or is suspected. There is no evidence of any fraudulent activity in the District’s financial system and there is no suspected fraud in the School District.
The District employs a comprehensive system of checks and balances which are called “internal controls” in the accounting industry. Internal controls are implemented to prevent fraud in any organization, public or private. In addition to having these controls implemented and adhered to, one of the activities in the District's annual financial audit is for the auditors to examine the internal control system to ensure they are implemented as designed and sufficient to create a secure financial system. The annual audit also involves transaction testing and financial analysis, which also serves to uncover any potential fraudulent activities. The District has a long history of clean audits, this year’s audit has just been completed and continues that history with another clean opinion from the auditors.
Even though there is no evidence or suspicion of fraud in the District, leadership will continue its history of remaining highly diligent to prevent fraud across the District’s assets.
It’s possible that the call for a forensic audit arose because the District finance leadership has been vocal about the $6.1M deficit for the 2021-22 fiscal year. This deficit is a grave cause for concern, as it is being backfilled by federal COVID relief funds and these funds are not ongoing. These federal relief funds are enough to keep operations sustained for the current fiscal year; but the District should stay in the mindset that costs need to be reduced if funding will not be restored by the state.
The deficit, and reasons causing it, have been discussed thoroughly in public board meetings and have not been caused by fraud or other illegal activities. To reiterate the summary of those discussions, the deficit is a matter of the state purposefully cutting education funding to force districts to use federal ESSER funds to backfill those cuts. This reduction is also magnified by the fact that the District lost 8% of enrollment last year, and only gained 2.4% of those students back this year, as student attendance and enrollment drive state funding.
When revenues decrease, typically the District would make spending cuts in proportion to the drop in revenue. Immediate cuts to this extent in an unpredictable enrollment environment would be poor management, given the obligations of the District. The District has a legal obligation to accept and accommodate any student who resides in our boundaries, at any time, regardless if they disenrolled last year or as recently as last week.
The District will never turn away students who reside within our boundaries, at any time in the school year, even if there is insufficient staffing and resources to support that student. The District is required to enroll any students and, if staffing cuts had been made, potentially stretch resources so thin that we lose quality of instruction. Knowing this, it is unwise to face unpredictable enrollment with swift cuts system-wide. It is more prudent to take a gradual approach to “right-sizing” the budget to match the enrollment that has proven to be stabilized, and continue to watch data trends as we move through and past the pandemic.
If state education funding cuts are restored in the 2022 legislative session, the ESSER funds currently allocated to backfill cuts would be freed up to be reallocated by the Board of Trustees. There are numerous needs for these one-time funds, including deferred maintenance projects District-wide. If these funds were freed up through the state restoring education cuts, the District would be in a better position to take on projects that would otherwise require bond levies or School Plant and Facility levies. This would result in a lower property tax burden to local taxpayers.
In recent weeks, we’ve heard criticism that our District leadership is “top heavy.” In fact, we run a pretty lean organization compared with many school districts of similar size. We have a superintendent and 11 District administrators for an organization that serves over 10,000 students, over 1,300 employees and an annual budget of $85 million. After an exhaustive curricular audit in 2019, the auditors concluded that we are “very thin at the district level for the number of students being educated in the system.” They recommended a reorganization of our administrative roles, which we implemented the following year. The audit team further recommended adding more staff.
Our District Administrators include two Assistant Superintendents, one who oversees elementary education and instruction, the other who oversees secondary education and curriculum, who report directly to our Superintendent. Our other District administrator roles are Assessments and System Performance, Communications, Curriculum, Equity and Federal Programs, Finance, Human Resources, Operations (including transportation, construction, maintenance, nutritional services, and child care), Special Education, and Technology.
On any given day we have roughly 30 people working out of our District Office. The majority of those individuals are in support roles, and many of them spend most of their time working in our schools.
Professional Development for Teachers
Teachers and administrators in our district have many opportunities to hone their skills so that we can better help students think deeply about what they are learning, and show them how they can set and achieve their goals.
One such opportunity is with the Public Education & Business Coalition (PEBC), which works with educators across the country to help them become exceptional. Their guiding principles include detailed adult learning opportunities to continue to develop our growth as highly trained professionals. The results have been incredibly positive here in our district. Many teachers say it’s one of the most successful and rewarding professional experiences they’ve had.
Learning is a complex intellectual activity. It is the thinking strategies that enable learners to make sense of complex texts, academic standards, and content. PEBC helps educators develop clear and detailed strategies to promote deep classroom learning through engagement, access and understanding. Lab classrooms are created where teachers and students use these strategies on a regular basis. Rich student discourse and thinking-oriented classroom communities provide time for modeling of skills and concepts, and giving students time to practice and reflect on their work.
Thinking to learn, and learning to think. This is how all students grapple with various subjects throughout the day with teachers who strive to reach every student to help them grow and love to learn.
PEBC is just one way we are building a system supporting teacher and student interactions around classroom content that’s aligned to our adopted standards. We want our teachers to continually learn the best ways they can connect with students across all subjects.