When Levies Won’t Pass

By Kellyn Brown

It was telling when in 2009 Kalispell voters rejected a $4.1 million-high school building reserve levy for School District No. 5. It had been approved every time it was on the ballot since 1982. When times are good, it’s easier to support schools. But they’re not.

The building levy was just one of many that have failed across the valley and the state in the last several years as the recession has made it harder for residents to pull the lever for even modest tax increases and made us scrutinize our respective school districts more closely.

Flathead Valley school districts almost collectively say they are running short of money to fund current programs. Barring an unforeseen miracle, Canyon Elementary School is poised to close and students there will be bused to Columbia Falls. And although numbers have risen at Kalispell elementary schools, enrollment has fallen at several others over last few years, which means they will get less money from the state than they have previously.

School districts are notoriously persistent in levy requests out of necessity because the monies received each year and used to shore up their respective budgets is almost always in flux. So School District No. 5 will once again ask voters in March to approve a building reserve and technology levy, this time for almost $6 million to be used over the next five years.

The most recent levy can be partially based on the Kalispell Fire Department’s insistence that the district’s buildings, specifically Flathead High School, pose safety hazards.

If recent history is any indication, its passage is far from a sure thing. In the last year, while some modest levies have passed, others have been voted down from Kalispell to Libby to Kila. If this one also fails, School District No. 5 will have to pay for improvements out of its general fund, which already faces a potential budget shortfall of $500,000 to $1 million.

And there are only two options for schools that need more money: ask for it again, or make cuts. Since District No. 5 will need to tighten its budget regardless of the levy’s passage, it is asking you for suggestions how. What’s on the line could be a bit more serious than just larger classrooms, so this is a survey you should consider filling out if you live in Kalispell.

It is located at http://www.sd5.k12.mt.us and is just a few pages, the first of which outlines how the district got into this position by a combination of a poor economy, previous failed levies and one-time stimulus funding that is no longer available and which it says “is like a family using their savings account to cover monthly expenses, it covers the short term but is not sustainable over time.”

So, what are their options? They range from the relatively mundane, like increasing community fees for use of facilities, to the much more drastic, like moving to a four-day week and eliminating sports programs.

Superintendent Darlene Schottle has emphasized that the survey isn’t exactly a vote, rather recommendations that will be considered moving forward. Still, she and the district should be given credit for including the general public in the process. After all, when you look at the projected shortfall coupled with recent economic trends it certainly appears that a more drastic solution is order.

Kalispell voters, and those elsewhere in the valley, are increasingly reluctant to continue filling the trough that supplements public education. This may the first survey of many to come.