As Enrollment Rises and Budgets Shrink, West Valley School District Asks Voters to Approve Levies

The rural school district has seen a 40% enrollment increase over the past decade as housing developments crop up on the northwest edge of Kalispell

By Denali Sagner
Students in class at West Valley School on Nov. 2, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Facing budget cuts and ballooning enrollment, the West Valley School District is asking voters to approve two levies that will fund teaching positions, support staff, facility repairs and technology infrastructure for the growing elementary school district.

The district has proposed a $347,000 general fund levy and an $83,000 technology levy, both of which will go before voters in May. West Valley voters have not passed a levy since 2007, and the district’s enrollment has nearly doubled since then, forcing larger classes to fit into limited spaces while caseloads for teachers and support staff mount. If the levy fails, the district, which has already cut $250,000 from its budget this year, will have to slash an additional $350,000, likely resulting in teacher layoffs and higher fees for children wanting to participate in activities and some classes.

The $347,000 general fund levy will allow the West Valley School District to retain classroom teachers and support staff that would otherwise face layoffs, as well as repair and replace failing heating units, HVAC controls and other infrastructure.

A classroom at West Valley School on Nov. 2, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

West Valley Superintendent Richard Gross told the Beacon that small class sizes are “our number one West Valley core competence,” but that growing enrollment has made it difficult to offer the individualized attention that many students need. He also noted the school’s aging infrastructure. According to communications sent to the community, the school’s current heating system failed eight times this winter, leaving some classrooms at temperatures as low as 57°F.

“We’ve got some heating units that are quite expensive to replace,” the superintendent said. “If one of those goes out, we’ll be in a pinch”

The $83,000 technology levy will be used to pay annual software feeds for mandated standardized testing, which the state of Montana requires but does not pay for. It will also allow the district to fund cybersecurity tools and personnel, IT support contracts, and the repair and replacement of computers needed for state testing.

While West Valley is required to conduct online benchmarking testing three times per year, as well as annual state testing, there is no state funding available to maintain the software needed to administer the exams.

“We are mandated to complete state testing and state benchmark requirements, but we get no funding to do that,” Gross said, noting that administering state tests can cost the district close to $12,000 annually.

With the technology levy, the district also hopes to protect against cyberattacks, which have increasingly targeted schools.

According to the K12 Security Information eXchange, a national nonprofit dedicated to protecting school districts from cyberattacks, there were 1,619 cybersecurity related incidents in American public schools between 2016 and 2022, including incidents in the Whitefish, Bigfork and Columbia Falls school districts. The incidents involved hackers gaining access to phone numbers of staff, students and parents.

Gross called cybersecurity and digital safety protections “expensive but important.”

The general fund levy will cost $5.44 per month for taxpayers with a home assessed value of $300,000, and the technology levy will cost $1.30 per month for the same taxpayer. For a homeowner with an assessed value of $444,700 — the median assessed home value in Flathead County — the two levies will cost $8.06 and $1.93 per month, respectively.

West Valley administrators and school board members warned that if the levy fails, the district will be forced to cut programs that have helped students bounce back from pandemic learning losses. They also cautioned that without the ability to pass a levy, the district will be trapped in an uncertain financial spiral where staff and resources are constantly on the chopping block.

 “As residents and taxpayers of West Valley, we understand the weight of this request and do not take it lightly. We worked hard to cut over $250,000 from the operating budget during the 2023/2024 school year by reducing spending and reallocating staff. Should the levy not pass we will be forced to cut a minimum of an additional $350,000 from the budget which will result in several teaching positions being lost and significant increases in fees for athletics, clubs, and some classes. This is not what we want to do, it is simply the reality of the situation that the district is facing. Cuts hurt kids, it’s that simple. Your support is more than a vote; it’s an investment in your children’s futures,” a letter from the school board stated.

In Montana, 80% of school budgets are funded by the state, and school districts are required to levy local taxpayers to make up the remaining 20%. Only 18.85% of West Valley’s budget is funded by local levies, placing it 17th out of the Flathead Valley’s 19 school districts in terms of how much of the budget comes from levies. The district ranks 13th out of 19 when it comes to per-pupil spending. West Valley has had to rely on private donations from teachers and parents to pay for supplies and student needs.

Noting that it’s been nearly two decades since West Valley voters passed a levy, Gross said that “there’s a whole generation of kids” who have never seen an improvement to the budget.

While district officials acknowledge the uphill battle of passing a levy, they hope the community will rally around the needs of West Valley’s students. Gross has heard from community members that they believe developers should help pay for public schools, or that the Legislature should reconfigure the funding formula. At the end of the day, however, “We have no way of making that happen,” Gross said.

Ballots will be mailed out on April 19 and must be received by 8 p.m. on May 7. More information about the two levies can be found here.

To register to vote, visit the Flathead County Election Department.

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