Plagued by persistent funding cuts, school trustees and administrators in Columbia Falls are seeking additional funding through local property taxes to address everyday classroom needs.
The general fund budget for Columbia Falls High School has shrunk $422,613 in the last five years, the symptom of a contentious and convoluted state funding formula that doesn’t always benefit smaller rural schools.
The latest example that local officials seized on is that Columbia Falls High School recently saw an enrollment drop of one student, from 691 to 690, and as a result lost $45,603 in state funding.
“This is what our situation is and we have to deal with it,” said school trustee Lyle Mitchell. “We have to try to continue to provide a quality education given the changing circumstances. Yet we’re charged with doing that with fewer dollars each year.”
As a way to make up for a reduced budget, the school district’s eight board members voted unanimously last month to propose a general fund mill levy for the high school for $478,984 annually.
Educators say the funds would help maintain and improve a wide range of programs and resources throughout the city’s only high school.
“It was a hard decision (to propose a levy). We just couldn’t continue to offer the opportunities to our high school kids without a levy,” said Dean Chisholm, an 11-year member of the school board. “I see it as a levy that will benefit the full spectrum of our students.”
Voters will decide May 6 whether to approve the levy, and absentee ballots were made available last week. Polling stations will be open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Glacier Gateway and Canyon Elementary schools, and between noon and 8 p.m. at the West Glacier Elementary School.
If approved, annual property taxes would increase $17.49 for a homeowner whose house had an assessed taxable value of $100,000, according to the school district. Taxpayers’ obligations for school funding would remain below the 2009 level. The levy would remain permanent based on a one-time home value assessment.
Schools like Columbia Falls that have seen enrollment drops in recent years are increasingly relying on property taxes and levies to keep up with ongoing demands and rising costs. Roughly 43 percent of public school budgets come from the state, which decides an amount through an equation that is largely weighted by enrollment.
In Columbia Falls’ high school district, property taxes represent 22.56 percent of revenues. In Whitefish, 49 percent of revenues come from property taxes and 32.66 percent of the Flathead High School district budget draws from property taxes.
“With the limited budget we’ve had from year to year, we’ve just been meeting our basic obligations,” Chisholm said.
If the levy were approved, the school board would gain control over the money and through its planning process has identified a list of items that would be addressed: add new dual-credit classes in math, business and health studies that would cooperate with Flathead Valley Community College; support current and new advanced placement courses; add new “Triad” classes that include multiple departments focused on technical skills and career-ready training; upgrade the computer software and hardware in the library; upgrade technology in the school’s Learning Center; enhance tutoring opportunities for students struggling in math classes; develop resources for students at risk of dropping out or failing classes; and improve the instrument and choir rooms and performance theatre.
“We’re really focusing on working to assure that our kids are both college and career ready. That’s where all the schools in the valley are going,” Superintendent Mike Nicosia said.
“There’s some tremendous new opportunities that other schools are going to be providing because they have the funding. We haven’t had those opportunities and we need those opportunities for our kids.”
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