Whitefish, Creston to Seek Levies for School Building Needs

Voters to decide building reserve levy in Whitefish in May election

By Dillon Tabish
Computer technology instructor Gary Carmichael helps Max Everett with a coding project at Muldown Elementary School on Dec. 11, 2014. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Faced with deferred maintenance and other infrastructure needs, Whitefish and Creston school districts will seek voter approval of tax levies in May.

While both school districts will float levy requests in the May 3 election, the Kalispell, Columbia Falls and Bigfork school districts have decided not to pursue a variety of levy requests this spring.

The decision to avoid a spring levy request in Kalispell comes as the district stands poised to float a bond request this fall to build two new facilities, an elementary and middle school, on the south end of town. School board trustees decided in recent weeks that trying levies for the elementary and high school districts could hamper the bond’s chances of passing later this year.

The high school district budget is projected to increase by $377,999 next year, according to school officials. Without new levies, the district will have to tap into reserve funds to cover the added operational costs, but school board trustees said passing the bond is a higher priority to address overcrowding in the city’s elementary classrooms.

In Whitefish, school administrators are faced with a new structure for tax increment financing that is forcing the district to seek voter approval of a building reserve levy for the first time in nearly 30 years. The Montana Legislature last session passed House Bill 114, which changed the ways school district could use TIF funds, or incremental increases in property tax revenue that are earmarked for a fund that supports improvements in a designated district.

While nearly all school districts in Montana use building reserve levies to support maintenance needs, Whitefish School District has been allowed to use TIF funds since 1987.

Now, following HB 114, the school district must first gain voter approval of a new levy that allows the district to simultaneously use TIF funds to reduce future property tax levies.

The school district is seeking $400,000 annually for seven years, or $2.8 million, for Muldown Elementary, the city’s lone elementary school, and $300,000 annually for seven years, or $2.1 million, for the high school.

If approved, annual property taxes could increase an estimated $36.50 for a home with a $200,000 assessed market value in both districts.

Whitefish School District Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt said homeowners would most likely not see a complete $36.50 increase in property taxes because the TIF funds could offset any added costs from the levy.

“Even though we would have the authority to levy that maximum amount, we are not obligated to do that. That’s the worst-case scenario,” Davis Schmidt said.

The additional building funds would address two key issues in Whitefish. The old roof at the high school gymnasium was not replaced during the renovation project and is now approaching the time to replace it. Administrators say they are studying the best way to reconstruct the roof and would use TIF funds if the building reserve levy were approved.

At Muldown Elementary, the largest elementary school in the state with 660 students, the facility is heated by a 50-year old system that needs to be updated, according to school officials. There are also structural components that need to be addressed as well as traffic safety issues at the site.

“Beyond the deferred maintenance of the high school roof, our highest priorities include safety and security upgrades, technology enhancements to the classrooms, parking lot resurfacing, carpet replacements, roof repairs, painting, gym floor refinishing, maintenance to the playgrounds, and landscaping,” school officials said in a memo sent to the community. “These are just a few of the ongoing expenses to upkeep and maintain our schools.”

The district is launching a long-term planning effort looking at Muldown’s future in May. The district has hired an architecture firm to lead future planning discussions.

Creston School District is seeking $15,000 annually for five years, or $75,000, to renovate and maintain its facilities. If approved, property taxes would increase $16.65 annually on a home with an assessed value of $200,000.

Bigfork School District is working on plans to break ground on a large renovation of the high school. Voters overwhelmingly approved a bond request in October for $14 million to redevelop Bigfork High School.