Whitefish’s New High School

By Beacon Staff

The cost of funding public education has expanded exponentially over the last 40 years. Some of the reasons for that include the American Disabilities Act, Special Education requirements, Title IX (gender equity requirements), and the new technology infrastructure. However, the simple fact remains that those escalating costs have far outstripped the inflation rate and many Montana communities’ ability to fund them. Teachers’ salaries and the aforementioned expenses will continue to grow whether or not the physical facilities of a school district are in need of renovation and/or replacement. Many people have come to the conclusion that the Whitefish High School is inadequate, and that the community needs a new modern facility. That begs the question as to how are the taxpayers supposed to pay for this new building?

The conventional tactic employed by the vested interests in building a new facility is to mount a public relations campaign about the need for new taxes, bonds, referendums, etc., and impose upon the taxpayers those new costs. Interestingly enough, these costs are paid for by all, even though only a small minority of taxpayers will be sending their children to this facility. (Full disclosure: This writer taught public high school for 40 years and served for seven years on the Montana State Board of Public Education). This is a classic example of what some have called “client politics” and others call “special interests.” Regardless, defenders of public education will claim that all of society benefits from quality schools.

But a discussion of whether or not a new high school benefits only a small minority or whether it benefits all does not answer the question of how the money is to be acquired. Traditional fundraising for schools places an inordinate burden on the property owner and property taxes in the Whitefish school district already rival those of affluent suburbs of major American cities. With realistic unemployment in Flathead County approaching 18 percent, multiple stories of families being separated because working men have relocated to the oil fields in another state and increasing numbers of bank-repossessed homes standing empty, the traditional approach to funding a new school facility will not be desirable.

When Whitefish remodeled Central School, the community missed a golden opportunity to sell that prime real estate and fund the costs of a new middle school as well as a new high school. The new tax revenue from that property would probably have paid much of the bond for a new middle-high school complex. Flathead did the same when instead of selling the old Flathead High School and building one new facility it built a second high school and doubled facility costs for the taxpayers. It is time for a new approach to funding public schools. Increasing property taxes in these times is only perpetuating the growing resentment against public schools and their debatable performance.

Political leaders, school officials and concerned citizens need to think creatively about how to divorce school funding from the property tax, how to proactively plan facility needs to meet the realistic needs of the community and develop proper economies of scale for schools. Building a $20 million facility for a small high school district does not instill confidence in the taxpayer that they are getting good value.

Rhetorical question: How many of those who would advocate increasing taxes to build a new high school would support increased logging, resource extraction and mining?

John Fuller lives in Whitefish.