By A.J. Etherington
The Courier 

An Education Campaign

School Board Plans Ahead for Levy Vote in May, Sets Up Action Committee

 

November 27, 2019



The Glasgow School’s Board of Trustees met at a “working meeting” Nov. 20 at the school district headquarters in Glasgow, to set up and advise an action committee that will spearhead the school district’s efforts to promote and pass the upcoming school operating levy in early May 2020. The committee, whose members are not completely set, will consist of, at least, physical therapist Rob Martin, FMDH primary care provider Dr. David Knierim and the Cottonwood Inn’s Zac Burner. Other potential members floated by the planning meeting’s attendees as they looked to find voices from the agriculture communities, downtown businesses and Glasgow’s aging population.

The school board is looking to establish an early strategic plan that will set forth a coordinated effort to message and pass the school’s future proposed operating levy for the upcoming fiscal year. The school district has not passed an operating levy in four years, so the meeting attendees set out to brain storm and understand ways they can move forward with a concerted effort to reach voters, overcome objections to further taxation, educate the public on how schools are funded and discuss the school’s use of the general fund.


Reaching voters was the main topic of concern at the meeting. Not only did the committee hope to target and educate existing voters, but promoting the vote and increasing the number of potential voters was raised. As board chair Mona Amundsen pointed out, last year the levy failed by a mere 46 votes.

Burner commented that he had been asked by members of the community why the funding to pay teachers more could not just come out of the general fund. The remark drew laughter from those present, because it highlighted the lack of understanding for how schools pay their bills and use funding from not only the government but from other income sources as well.

The action committee will also look to educate the public on how Glasgow, as a district, compares to other class B and regional schools when it comes to teacher salary. The hope was to show that the district is not competitive in attracting and retaining teachers due to their low entry-level salaries. The strategy of promoting the levy by highlighting a budget plan that would increase salaries was used in 2018 and 2019, but failed to garner the needed support from voters.

Dr. Knierim pointed out that it was important to paint the picture of the levy’s benefit for the community. “We need to point out the impact. What does the levy pay for,” he asked rhetorically, before going on to say that he saw the promotions coming out in waves with a “this is what we’re getting” then a “this is what it costs” and then a “this is the benefit.” He added that at the end they needed to explicitly say, “Say yes to Scottie Schools on this date.”


The election will be held on May 5, but the absentee ballots will be sent out on April 15 and can be returned to the school district anytime between receipt and the election date. It was commonly understood at the meeting that the message needed to reach as many people as possible before the absentee ballots went out.

Also discussed was the need for the committee to show the public what the levy would cost them directly. Once the mills were set by the board of trustees, the committee can evaluate what the levy will cost a typical house, an acre of farm land and business property across the district. A difficult task considering the varied tax levels across the county, as board vice chair Ryan Fast pointed out.

On past election results the board was more reserved, only discussing the topic in generalities and abstracts. Trustee John Daggett stated, “I’ve heard a lot of reasons for voting no. Many, no matter what, won’t change their minds, but I think, based on what I’ve heard about the reasons in the past, some may change their minds.” He would go on later, while emphasizing the need to educate the public, to say, “You can never educate people enough about what you are voting for.”


The elephant in the room was clear, however, and towards the end of the meeting it was finally raised by Burner. “We’re battling a big tax hike this year,” he said, referring to the county and city tax assessments and the Montana Revenue Services’ recent reevaluation of properties in the county that jumped a number of tax bills. “So, we’ve got to get that bad taste out of the way.”

The school faces a separate challenge in that funding model as well. The district, unlike the county and city governments, must ask the voters to approve their general operating levy. County and city governments are allowed to tax up to a certain amount with just a vote from the county commission or city council. They only need to have voter approval when deciding on special district funds like a hospital district or special improvement district. That puts schools at a disadvantage, because they must ask voters to weigh in on their operating funds when those same voters could be frustrated about city or county taxation. As a result, voters can sometimes reject school taxes for no other reason than they can.

That negative sentiment was quickly followed by the other grim reality facing the effort, the economy in Glasgow is not as good as it could be. The loss of jobs in town, the poor harvest performance and crop prices has dampened the economic prospects of the town, at least anecdotally.

“We need to be very careful with our farming community,” added Amundson. The room was in general agreement about the potential for a negative effect due to tax hikes and a down economy in the city.

According to a 2018 report from the Montana Office of Public Instruction in fiscal year 2017, schools received about 43.53 percent of their funding from the state, 27 percent from local property taxes, 9.21 percent from county sources, 8.4 percent from non-tax local sources and 11.86 percent from federal sources. Meaning that other than state funds, the local operating levy is one of the largest sources of income for the school district.

To fund the general operating expenses of the school district the state breaks up funding into three sections. The first is direct state aid, which in 2017 amounted to a 44.7 percent state average of a school's general fund. The remainder is a blend of state and local levy monies that brings a district up to the “BASE” general fund amount. The BASE is determined by the school's needs and the state's requirements. The board of trustees must enact a tax that will meet the “Guaranteed Tax Base Aid” when combined with non-levy revenue and fund reappropriations.

The school can then request additional money from taxpayers through the levy to fund their general budget up to the max allowable by law. Based on state averages the direct aid was 44.7 percent and the BASE offset was 35.3 percent in 2017. In most districts the remaining 20 percent was the additional general operating levy.

In the Glasgow School District the operating levy has failed each year since 2016. In 2016, the board requested a $28,886.72 dollar levy on top of the base funds. In 2017, they raised the levy request to $71,273.83, which failed by more than 300 votes. In 2018, the school asked for a $127,695 increase in revenue for the year, but it failed as well with 986 voting against it and 808 voting in favor – a loss of 178 votes. In 2019, the school board reduced the overall tax increase request to $104,074 dollars, but that too failed, but by a much smaller number. The 2019 vote totals came out at 704 voting no and 658 voting yes – a loss of only 46 votes. Those numbers seem to signal a potential shift in the levy prospects for 2020 as the school board gears up to promote their upcoming levy.

The last time the board of trustees was able to get voters to approve a levy was 2015. That levy increased taxes by a mere $18,271.65 and was approved by 99 votes. That levy request demonstrated – and as some of the board members and meeting attendees pointed out – the levy requests used to be fairly marginal and small in nature, but as each year passes where they fail to pass a levy the requirements of the school district continue to grow which the board says forces the levy to continue to rise year after year.


 

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