By Michael Howell
The Hamilton School District Board of Trustees is asking the community to step up and pass a general fund levy to fund a set of initiatives focused on achieving the District’s newly adopted mission and educational goals. The total cost of implementing the new goals is estimated at $485,000 annually. The levy, if passed, would add $25.11 to the tax bill for a home with an assessed taxable value of $100,000. Owner of a home assessed at $200,000 in taxable value would pay an extra $50.22 per year in taxes.
David Bedey, Board Chairman, said that the board spent a good four months including public hearings working on its mission and goals. One outcome of that was the establishment of an annual report requirement. The first annual report was produced on February 10, 2014.
“Based on that report and analysis,” said Bedey, “we arrived at the conclusion that a general fund levy was needed to put the initiatives in place that we need to meet our goals.”
School District Superintendent Tom Korst was tasked with supervising the collaborative development of action plans that set forth measurable objectives for meeting those goals and the strategies for achieving them. He was also tasked with coming up with a budget to meet those plans.
Korst was able to implement a host of mission-critical objectives this year without any additional funding or new hires through an internal reorganization of existing personnel and resources. He was able to provide paraprofessionals for an expansion of the preschool program; two k-8 teachers to enable kindergarten, first and second grade class size reductions; two half-time math teachers for the high school; a part-time art teacher at Daly; one and a half teachers and a paraprofessional for the gifted and talented program; professional teaming for increased focus on real-world problems in math; and two half time teachers for a 7th and 8th grade civics course and a personal finance course.
Close to half of next year’s action plans are also obtainable through internal reorganization of funds with no new hires, including a $200,000 line item for replacing computers, textbooks and other materials. But five initiatives remain unfunded by the current budget.
The requested levy would fund these five initiatives:
• A Career Pathways Program in a partnership with the Bitterroot College to prepare students for immediate employment or university training in medical, technological, and manufacturing industries. Students enrolled in these programs will be prepared to enter the workforce immediately after graduation and/or establish a strong foundation to pursue a 2- or 4-year college degree. Implementation will occur over the next three years and will be fully operational by school year 2016-2017. Cost: $175,000.
• A Performing Arts Program would reinstate the high school theater program that was cut in 2010. Cost: $45,000.
• The Keystone Program, a summer and after school program for k-12 students. Cost: $25,000.
• A Community Facility Rentals Program to maintain fee rates and cover ongoing costs for District facility rentals such as classrooms, gyms and the PAC. Cost: $40,000.
• High School and Middle School fee reduction to keep activity fees and pay-to-play fees reasonable. Cost $40,000.
• The final $160,000 is to cover predicted budget shortfalls over the next two years and reduce the likelihood of further cuts to programs being offered.
The District operates on five campuses and, when possible, looks for outside grants to fund major facility repairs. At the end of school year 2012-2013, Grantsdale School was closed, which reduced the District’s annual operating cost by approximately $100,000. The property is currently in the process of being sold. The report contains a detailed and itemized description of all the facilities owned and operated by the school and the acreage.
The District’s enrollment has been trending downward over the past 10 years at an average rate of about 1% per year. Despite corresponding reductions in staff, the average class size continues to meet Montana accreditation standards. A graph of the school’s enrollment figures from 2003 to 2014 is included in the report.
When it comes to per student funding, Hamilton ranks near the bottom for Class A schools in the state. Anaconda and Dillon spend between $10,000 to $11,000 per student. Whitefish, Polson, Libby, Frenchtown and Columbia Falls all spend over $9,000 per student. Stevensville, Hamilton and Corvallis are spending less than $9,000 per student.
When it comes to teacher compensation, Hamilton ranks at the very bottom of the list for Class A schools in terms of total compensation of teachers over a 26-year career path.
The District eliminated 14 staff positions last year and plans on eliminating about six more next year.
About 25% of the District’s spending is supported by local property taxes. As part of its equalization program the state mandates a maximum levy for each school and funds 80% of it. District voters can augment this amount by approving additional levies or bonds. Presently the voter approved general fund levy is $728,000, which has been constant since 2005. Taxpayers also approved a bond in 1997 for construction of the high school building. The District refinanced the bond in 2010, saving $440,000 over the life of the loan. The District pays about $900,000 annually on the bond which is scheduled to be paid off in 2018.
For more information about the levy you can call the school district office at 363-2280 or visit the website at www.HSD3.org.