Libby Superintendent: School Levy Essential

By Beacon Staff

LIBBY – Superintendent K.W. Maki doesn’t stay up at night thinking about the $350,000 operating levy that heads to Libby voters on May 7. After 45 years in education, he’s seen too much to lose sleep. But there is no doubt it’s on his mind every waking hour.

Maki and others say the Libby School District will face a $700,000 budget shortfall during the 2013–2014 school year and if the levy doesn’t pass the district could lose state accreditation. This year, four teachers have retired and 14 non-tenured teachers were informed last month that they may not have a job at the end of the school year.

“This levy isn’t just about keeping our standard of education up,” Maki said. “It’s about keeping us out of the hole.”

The reason behind the shrinking budget – which is about $7 million annually – is enrollment numbers that have spiraled downward in the last two decades. In 1994, 2,180 students attended Libby’s public schools. This year, there are 1,131 students at the school. Maki says an aging population has a lot to do with the decline. In 2000, the average age in Libby was 43, but 10 years later it was 45. The closure of mines and mills have also taken a toll. According to Maki, the year after the Stimson Lumber Co. mill closed, the district lost 172 students.

“The big story here is that this is what happens when jobs go away,” said elementary school Principal Ron Goodman. “The schools suffer and the community suffers.”

The declining enrollment is also putting the district’s class ranking at risk. In 1987, the high school was class AA, but now it’s class A and on the cusp of falling to class B.

In recent years, the district has worked to save money and cut expenses. In the last 15 years, it has closed three elementary schools. Since 1998, it has reduced administrative staff by almost half. Teachers and support staff have been cut by 36 percent.

“We’ve tried to downsize with dignity,” Maki said. “But we’ve come to a point where if we get too small, it will be harder for us to make more cuts in the future without doing severe damage to the programs, which will have a negative impact on the kids … We are at a crossroads. Either we’re going to go backwards or we’re going to move forward.”

Even if the levy doesn’t pass, Maki is already taking a red pen to the 2013-2014 budget. Cuts include $10,000 in energy savings, $55,000 cut from the activities and athletics budget and $213,000 from the retirement of four teachers. If the levy doesn’t pass, five full-time positions will be cut, he said.

“We’re not kidding, this (levy) is something we need to have,” Maki said.

If five more teachers are let go, officials says it would almost certainly put the district’s accreditation at risk. Goodman also said it would have a detrimental effect on the students themselves.

Goodman said in order for a grade to meet state accreditation standards, class sizes must not get too big. For example, the state of Montana requires one instructor for every 20 students in kindergarten to second grade. With 88 kindergarten students projected for the 2013-2014 school year, Goodman says there will have to be at least five sections, but he is unsure if he’ll have enough staff.

“If the levy passes, then we can make this work,” he said. “But if not, it’s really a choice between bad, badder and baddest (options).”

In recent weeks, a community group calling itself Citizens Promoting Libby Schools has launched a grassroots effort to get the word out about the levy. Thomas Cook, who has a son in kindergarten, believes the levy is a reasonable request and something that would benefit the town. Cook and about 30 other volunteers have met with neighbors and community groups to gather support for the vote.

“They’re asking the community to meet them halfway,” he said.

The school levy would be collected through property tax assessments and based on the taxable market value, according to the district. For a home worth $100,000, the levy would cost an owner about $2.88 a month and $34.58 a year. For a home valued at $200,000, it would be $5.76 a month or $69.16 a year.

The last time a school levy passed in Libby was in 2002. In 2011, a bond and levy both failed by wide margins. Goodman said with a median household income of $32,000 in the area, it’s hard to ask people for more money.

“I wish we weren’t in this position, but we are,” he said.

Maki agreed, but said with the price of supplies and electricity increasing and less money coming from the state, it is the only option.

“(Sometimes) the public takes us for granted and say, ‘We’ve had to tighten our belts so you should too,’” he said. “Well, we have.”

As the Libby School District faces an uncertain future, Maki pointed out that last year the school district still had one of the state’s highest graduation rates at 93.8 percent. By comparison, Polson was at 91.6 percent and Whitefish was at 88 percent. Goodman said standardized test scores also show Libby’s students are ahead of the pack.

“We’re odds beaters here,” Goodman said. “We’re at or above state performance standards, but we have some of the highest unemployment in the state.”

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