Bigfork School District to Mail Ballots for Tech Levies in April

Funds needed to address aging and obsolete technology and bolster cyber security

By Myers Reece
Bigfork High School on Aug. 25, 2017. Beacon file photo

The Bigfork School District will mail ballots to voters in April for a pair of 10-year technology levies that would provide critical funds to upgrade aging computers, improve cyber security and address other needs.

Ballots will be due back by May 8.

Because other school district taxes are decreasing, the net result for property taxpayers approving the $150,000 elementary tech levy would actually be a $9.17 annual decrease on tax bills for a home valued at $200,000. For the $100,000 high school tech levy, there would be an annual increase of less than a dollar on the same valued home.

The district has never floated a tech levy before, and in the past has used either technology or flex payments from the state. But during the last session, the Legislature eliminated both of those accounts, forcing the district to find funds elsewhere to address technology deficiencies that are growing more urgent each year.

According to Bigfork Superintendent Matt Jensen, more than 75 percent of student computers are older than 2011, a figure that jumps up to 80 percent for staff computers, while most computers in the elementary school are no longer supported by Apple for security updates.

Additionally, smartboards throughout the elementary are reaching the end of their lives, and the school doesn’t have gigabit Ethernet. Nearly every iPad in the district is obsolete as well.

“Most people have had several phone upgrades in the last 10 years, and the same needs are true for schools,” Jensen said. “We’re trying to run educational software that the machine just can’t handle, which limits what we can do instructionally with it. The technology becomes obsolete; software updates aren’t available.”

Moreover, the importance of schools bolstering cyber security was brought into focus last fall when hackers shut down Flathead Valley schools for three days and infiltrated the Columbia Falls school district’s server to obtain personal information in an extortion attempt.

“We want to make sure we can maintain a secure network that’s not an easy target for those types of criminals,” Jensen said.

Levies differ from bonds, and the two can only fund specific, separate needs. The $14 million school bond overwhelmingly approved by Bigfork voters in 2015 funded a Bigfork High School renovation project but didn’t provide any dollars for operational or technology expenses.

The tech levy, meanwhile, can only be used for technology needs such as software, hardware, licenses, repairs and technology infrastructure. It can’t be used for salaries or benefits. The levy will run for 10 years.

The district hasn’t passed a general fund operational levy since 2007, and is currently operating well below maximum funding levels at both the elementary and high school levels, while many other school districts routinely operate at or above maximum.

That trend isn’t sustainable long-term, meaning an operational levy will be necessary down the road, but Jensen said the focus now is on addressing immediate technology needs and easing the burden on taxpayers.

“Our board is very conscientious about what they pass on to taxpayers,” Jensen said. “That’s front and center in these conversations: How’s it going to impact our taxpayers? The reality is that we need some funds to upgrade our technology and this is a good time to do it because we’re seeing a decrease in some of our other line items.”

For more information, contact the Bigfork School District at (406) 837-7400.

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