Investing in Information Technology and Our Kids’ Future

Truth is that we have to invest in the schools and the IT infrastructure that supports them

By Scott Countryman

The May 6 edition of the Beacon poignantly illustrates a serious issue facing the Flathead as well as the rest of Montana. Follow the progression through these four articles.

Article 1) speaks to the praises of a new tech startup in Whitefish. A pretty cool mobile app that drives corporate brand awareness inside of a game. A nice, feel good article about innovation occurring in the valley.

Article 2) speaks to the state government not continuing a federal program to provide private sector incentives aimed at building broadband infrastructure. The article stated the Federal Communications Commission ranked Montana as providing the least access to what the agency now considers standard broadband speeds. To be fair, the federal programs didn’t have enough oversight, which caused some tax dollars to be wasted, but they also did quite a bit of good. This is somewhat typical of most government programs. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of work left to do in Montana.

Article 3) hits on the fact that the state’s public school system won’t meet federal guidelines of 95 percent common core participation this year. The shortfall is, in part, caused by computer-related issues. The article didn’t say it but those issues were a combination of an overly burdened hosted testing platform and dismal broadband infrastructure which cripples many rural schools’ ability to get to the host to take the tests. I’m not sure who decided that a hosted testing platform was a good idea, but clearly they didn’t understand there are still a number of Montana schools running on DSL circuits.

Article 4) states that Whitefish approved a mill levy for a variety of school maintenance and growth needs as did Somers and Lakeside, yet last year Kalispell didn’t pass a levy designed to support necessary information technology maintenance and IT growth needs. That was a huge mistake on the part of the voters, but to be fair the taxes inside Kalispell limits are already ridiculous. Having just moved from Whitefish to Kalispell, my new home’s value was a mere 17 percent higher in Kalispell, but my property taxes jumped 81 percent. At that rate, it’s hard to fathom what it will take to get mill levies passed in the future.

See the problem? Most people like talking about high-paying tech companies coming to Montana because it feels good to know that people can earn a higher quality of living. Truth is that we have to invest in the schools and the IT infrastructure that supports them or else Montana kids won’t be qualified to work for those higher paying tech firms.

At the core, the state needs to overhaul how it generates revenue for schools. The school trust land system was brilliant in its day, but it’s underserving our overcrowded educational system now. The federal E-Rate program helps schools offset certain operational and capital costs, but in cases like broadband, the program will only pay for fiber optic installation from the edge of the school property into the building. Most of the expense is getting to the edge of the school property in the first place.

At the county level, we have a huge portion of our population paying reduced county taxes but enjoying city services that includes the use of the high schools, emergency services, city roads, etc. Closing the gap between city and county taxes would be a painful local conversation to have, but it’s one that should occur for the sake of the kids. For if the school funding models don’t get fixed at the state and local levels, the world is surely going to pass by our kids.

Scott Countryman

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