Mayor’s Roundtable: The real story on education

By Mayor Shelby Rognstad
Reader Contributor

Speaking with many of the leading employers in our region, I know that the number-one challenge for local business recruitment and retention is education. Because Idaho ranks next to last in state funding for public education, public perception is that Idaho is not the place to prepare your children for the competitive workforce of tomorrow. Because of this, we lose good people that would contribute to our growing economy and educated workforce. 

Mayor Shelby Rognstad.

According to national school ranking site Niche (2016), LPO School District ranks high in our state, 19th out of 136; Sandpoint High School ranks 28th out of 171 and Forrest Bird Charter School ranks ninth out of 171. This puts the district and SHS in the 25th percentile nationally, while Forest Bird almost reaches the 10th percentile, beating 88.4% of all public high schools in the US. Even across the state, students perform slightly above the national average on reading, writing, math and science, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (2016). While the NAEP data compare academic performance across reading, writing, science and math, the Niche rankings also compare graduation rates, continuing education rates, entrance exam scores, access to extracurricular activities, athletics, student diversity, safety and student and parent satisfaction.

What is probably most impressive about these numbers is that our local schools have reached the top 25% of U.S. public schools while receiving roughly half the funding of other states in the top 25 percent. Our schools are doing a lot more with a whole lot less. Think of this next time we have a supplemental levy. While these statistics are much to be proud of, we still have much to do to overcome the stigma that public education in Idaho is inferior. Partly because we as a community have to fight so hard every two years to maintain our paltry funding. Passing a levy is exhausting for our school system, parents, teachers and administrators not just because of the ongoing effort required to pass it but because of the insecurity knowing that any given year it could disappear for good (as it happened in Boundary County). It also makes it that much harder to retain great teachers which is where a good education begins. It is no wonder that we lost a great superintendent, Shawn Woodward, to Mead, where he doesn’t have to go through the ringer every two years just to pay district bills. Imagine if all that energy the district wasted on politics every two years went into educating our youth. Where would we be then? What would teacher and administrator recruitment and retention look like?

So why is it that our schools are doing so well despite being the second worst in the nation in funding? Of course, our schools are only as good as our teachers. We are fortunate to have many excellent, dedicated and creative teachers in the District that have stayed committed to this community when they could receive much better compensation across the border. 

What is most unique about Sandpoint is the tremendous amount of community philanthropic support for education and opportunity that fills the funding gap. Organizations like the Bulldog Bench make athletic programs accessible when they could not otherwise be funded through the school alone. They also provide scholarships supporting kids continuing on to college. 

The city of Sandpoint’s partnership with the school district allows the district use of a class A athletic facility at Memorial Field reducing strain on the district budget. Its reconstruction was funded by taxpayers through the local option tax. The city’s partnership extends to Makerpoint and other community organizations that bring an incredible array of affordable educational and athletic programming to students and residents through the City Recreation Department.

Panhandle Alliance for Education (panhandlealliance.org) is a monumental example of grassroots philanthropy, creating a $3.5 million endowment over the last 16 years dedicated to expanding school curriculum and driving success in education throughout the district. They have funded nearly $1.8 million since 2003 in teacher grants plus another $3 million is strategic programming district wide supporting everything from computer science to reading, math and the arts.

Rotary has also been a huge contributor as well. They host the CHAFE 150 (https://chafe150.org/) on June 15. It has grown into a nationally-recognized fundraising bicycle ride. Proceeds this year will go fund a child literacy program.

Booktrust (www.booktrust.org) is a national nonprofit that also supports early childhood literacy by giving underserved youth access and choice to books. We are so fortunate in that LPOSD is the only school district in Idaho in which they work.

North Idaho High School Aerospace Program (highschoolaerospace.org) is a homegrown anomaly at SHS that teaches kids ground aviation, pilot training, airplane construction and has now added drone construction and flight to their portfolio. This program is only possible because of grant funding, support from local business, volunteers and philanthropists.

Inspire Idaho (http://www.inspireidaho.com/) is the brainchild of Innovation Collective whose mission is to prepare communities for the future of work. Sandpoint again is fortunate to be one of the few communities in which they work. This past Monday they hosted an introductory seminar at the East Bonner County Library. InspireID partners with University of Idaho and industry leaders like Apple, Inc. to provide coding education in the ever growing field of app development and computer programming. 

These are just some of the examples that demonstrate how this community bootstraps local education, defies the odds and overcomes severe funding shortages to create real education and opportunity for our youth. The narrative that Idaho has inferior education is unfortunate and untrue. The real story is why education in Idaho, and LPOSD in particular, is so successful and resource efficient. We should be proud of our achievement, celebrate it and share it. 

I hope that one day soon we can achieve a more sustainable funding model that doesn’t require supplemental levies every two years and can bring Idaho in-line with the rest of the nation in public school funding. If we could achieve this, we could become not just a great school district in Idaho, but a great school district in the nation. This would be great for our economy and it would be great for our children’s future.

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