Bigfork Schools to run $600K in general fund levies

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Shown is the foyer outside the gymnasium during an open house at Bigfork High School on Tuesday, Dec. 5.

The Bigfork School District Board is asking taxpayers to support two general fund levies totaling $603,568 this May that, if passed, would allow the schools to increase course offerings in step with higher student enrollment, and bring staff salaries and benefits closer to other Flathead Valley schools. The levies break down to $346,146 for the Bigfork Elementary District and $257,422 for the Bigfork High School District. Property taxes for residents of the elementary district would increase by $30.48 annually on a $200,000 house, while those living in the high school district would see an $18.13 annual increase. These numbers are estimates provided by Bigfork School District 38 — finalized values will be available from the Montana Department of Revenue after March 1. General fund levies, like the one on this year’s ballot, support the school’s operations and can be allocated for things like personal, classroom supplies and building repairs or maintenance.

Superintendent Matt Jensen said taxpayer contributions to the district haven’t changed in 13 years, since the school last ran a general fund levy back in 2007. Back then, voters approved $75,586 for the elementary school and $85,000 for the high school, a property tax increase of $7.10 and $6.28, respectively per $100,000 in assessed property.

“The thought process historically in our district is we don’t ask unless we need it, and we just keep finding creative ways to make the budget work without asking taxpayers for more,” Jensen explained. “We’ve been able to make it 13 years, which I think is a great testament to the fiscal responsibility of the trustees.”

Jensen said the district decided to ask for a levy since the school has reached a point where “we will not be able to maintain what we currently have, let alone grow courses based on increased student numbers, if we don’t pass a levy.”

At one time the school employed two shop teachers, separate instructors for band and choir and several social studies teachers. Today, a single music teacher instructs both band and choir, one shop teacher serves the high school and middle school, and they’ve whittled down their social studies offerings.

At the same time, enrollment has risen from 571 at the elementary and junior high combined in the fall of 2016 to 594 this year. On the high school side, student populations jumped from 283 to 340 over the same time period.

“We’ve cut all of those things down to what barely meets accreditation standards,” he added.

School budgets are funded by two means: state dollars and local funding. At a minimum, Jensen said the state requires school budgets to be at least 80% funded without a levy.

Some other local districts run levies each year to keep their schools 100% funded, Jensen said. Bigfork’s strategy has been more fiscally conservative — they’ve cut things like course offerings, textbooks and even staff raises and benefits to keep from having to approach taxpayers.

Jensen said if the levy doesn’t pass, the school could still keep the lights on, so to speak, but they would see a continued reduction in staffing and courses offered.

Trustee Zack Anderson who has served for two, three-year terms, said he doesn’t take tax increases lightly, but wants Bigfork Schools to be able to provide the best staff, which usually comes at a higher cost.

“In general, for me to feel that raising the voters’ taxes is prudent ‘the house needs to be in order’ first. Currently, I believe the School to be in order and is being run as efficiently as possible. I think our teachers, paraprofessionals and grounds staff are underpaid,” Anderson wrote. “I feel strongly that in order to have the best people around our kids we need to bring staff salaries up.  A vote for this levy will do just that.”

The district has made small increases to base staff pay over the years, but not enough to keep up with inflation, cost of living increases, Bigfork Schools business manager Lacey Porrovecchio wrote in a Feb. 10 email. Bigfork has therefore fallen behind other area schools along with Class B schools outside the county.

Bigfork’s starting salary is comparable to schools in West Valley, $2,000 less than schools in Kalispell and $5,000 less than Polson. On the other end of the spectrum at the top side of the pay scale, Bigfork is nearly $7,000 less than West Valley, $10,000 less than Kalispell and $14,000 behind Polson.

“The increases to the base just haven’t happened in our district — not because our teachers are less deserving than teachers anywhere else — we just haven’t had the budget to do it,” Jensen said. “… That’s one of the things our trustees want to make right.”

The confounding part of school funding for many is the strict regulations that accompany how dollars can be spent — if there is leftover money in one pot, say transportation, for example, the district can’t move that surplus to the general fund because it is considered supplanting, which is an illegal practice.

“Levies are our really only opportunity to get money into the line items for salaries and benefits, course offerings, staffing, curriculum,” Jensen said. “I wish there was some sort of alternative that the taxpayers didn’t have to bear the burden of, but there’s not. The system is designed where you have to continually go back and ask your taxpayers to recommit to the school.”

Taxpayers in Bigfork most recently supported technology levies in 2018 to upgrade aging computers and technology infrastructure at Bigfork Schools. The elementary levy was $150,000, while the high school technology levy was $100,000. Increased state funding that year meant that taxpayers actually saw a decrease in their taxes since the state contributed Guaranteed Tax Base Aid that the school hadn’t gotten previously, Porrovecchio explained.

Bigfork voters also passed two bonds in recent history — a $5.5 million bond to upgrade the elementary school passed in 2007, while an $11.1 million bond for the high school failed that same year. Unlike levy monies, bond funds are strictly for building improvements only and cannot be used toward operations or other costs.

In 2015, voters approved a $14 million bond to renovate the high school, which added $68 per every $200,000 in assessed property.

The high school bond will be dropped from taxes in 2036, while the 2007 elementary school bond will be dropped in 2023.

The levy election will be held May 5 and in the meantime, those with questions regarding the Bigfork Schools general fund levy can reach out to individual trustees, whose email addresses are listed on the school website, or the district by calling (406) 837-7400. »

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