Five school districts in the Flathead Valley are asking voters to approve school levies. Voters have until the end of Tuesday, May 8 to vote on them. They’re largely a response to state budget cuts enacted by the legislature last year.
In Kalispell, the school district is asking voters to approve a $1 million levy for elementary schools. Superintendent Mark Flatau says if it doesn’t pass, the district may have to consider laying-off staff to stay in the black.
"We're a people organization. We are filled with not only teaching staff, but support staff and food service workers and custodians and a variety of other support staff in the district. But we worked hard not to impact those positions," Flatau says.
The Kalispell elementary levy comes to a little more than $5 a month for the average homeowner. Flateau says it’s not paying for anything fancy.
"I refer to it as the bread and butter of our schools. It's the meat potatoes. It's what pays the light bills. It's what pays for staffing, textbooks, safety, security issues. All of those fall within our general operational support. And that's what this levy is all about."
The Kalispell school district lost $700,000 in state funding this year, and will again next year. On top of that, Flatau says costs for the school’s health insurance program for teachers and staff are on the rise.
"We offer a moderate health care plan. It is not by any means the Cadillac version. But again, those rising costs — just like our community members and other businesses are struggling with health care — so are we in trying to keep those costs under control."
Flatau says Kalispell’s five elementary schools have already cut $350,000 from this year’s budget, with another $323,000 cut next year to avoid layoffs. He says the district pored over hundreds of budget line items.
"It ranged from very, very small items to fairly expensive items. And it impacted every single budget," he says.
The city’s two high schools are navigating similar cuts, and Superintendent Flatau says it’s likely high schools will need levy funds next year.
In Whitefish, voters are being asked to approve a $95,000 levy on the May 8 ballot to meet enrollment needs at Muldown Elementary School.
And West Valley School District, which has more than doubled student enrollment since 2006, is asking for almost $150,000 to upgrade technology and curricula and hire a new second-grade teacher.
Lance Melton, executive director of Montana School Boards Association says this round of levies isn’t surprising, given that legislators were trying to cut $125 million last session.
"And a good share that would have come from school districts," Melton says.
Legislators halted school block grant payments last year, with a plan to backfill those payments through a shift in property taxes. It creates a pinch for schools short-term but Melton says schools will recover the gaps in a few years if the legislature sticks to its plan.
Legislators also temporarily suspended more than $3 million in annual payments to schools for data collection and sharing and axed a few other grant programs.
"When that money goes away you've got to find a way to replace it," say Melton.
Melton says Montanans tend to pass school levies 80 to 90 percent of the time. He says on any given year, about a third of the state’s 320 school districts float a levy to residents, but this year might be different.
"It wouldn't surprise me a bit to see an increase this year," he says.
Unlike some school districts which put levies on the ballot yearly to keep school budgets close to their maximum, Flathead Valley schools tend to ask for levies as a last resort. Superintendent Mark Flatau says Kalispell elementary school last asked for a general fund levy in 2012.
"We only ask when we believe that we absolutely need the dollars for the for the coming year," Flatau says. "This was the year that we knew we we could not continue the program that we're offering, at the staffing levels that we have, without some additional local support."
Absentee ballots for the Flathead school district levies will be accepted through election day on Tuesday, May 8 at the following locations:
Kalispell School District ballots will be accepted at the Country Fair Kitchen Building on the Flathead County Fairgrounds from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on May 8.
Whitefish School District: Whitefish School District Board Room in the Whitefish Middle School, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Columbia Falls Schools: Glacier Gateway Elementary at 440 Fourth Avenue West in Columbia Falls, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Bigfork Schools: Bigfork School District office at 600 Commerce Street, 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
West Valley Schools: mail ballots may be returned to West Valley School, 2290 Farm to Mark Road, Kalispell between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.