Setting the facts straight about school levy request

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On April 10, the Daily Inter Lake published a letter by Mark Agather entitled “Vote no on school bond.” I do not know Mr. Agather, but I respect him as a fellow citizen entitled to his opinion. However, the facts about school elections, as I understand them, are quite different from Mr. Agather’s statements. I’ll present what I know for the readers’ consideration.

First, Mr. Agather says there will be a “school bond election” on May 8. In Flathead County there are 23 school districts. Five of them (Kalispell, Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Bigfork and West Valley) are asking for mill levies, not bond issues, in the upcoming election. As most people know, a mill levy increases revenue for specific operating funds. A bond issue creates a large amount of money for building a new school or remodeling an old one. The difference is significant. Bond issues increase taxes a lot. Mill levies increase taxes by a much smaller amount. Thus, I believe that Mr. Agather is mistaken and misleading in saying that the May 8 election is about a school bond.

Second, Mr. Agather says that after last year’s bond election, his school taxes increased 43 percent. He and I both live in Kalispell. On my 2016 tax bill, I was levied a total of 348.07 mills for high school, elementary school and general school funding. After the election was approved, approximately $50 million in bonds were issued. Sure enough, my 2017 tax bill for local schools went up. My total was 432.82 mills. This is an increase of 24.3%. That’s steep, but it’s far below the 43% Mr. Agather claims. In the upcoming election, the Kalispell district is asking for a levy of 18.66 mills. That is an increase of 4.3%. I’m willing to accept that to maintain the quality of our schools.

Third, Mr. Agather claims over and over that holding the school election on May 8 is a plan by the schools to “maximize the chances of success.” This is not true. The date of school elections is established by state law. MCA 20-20-105 says that “the first Tuesday after the first Monday in May of each year is the regular school election day.” School districts have no authority to set or change the date of a school election. Only the state legislature can do that.

Fourth, Mr. Agather says that the timing of the election “ensures most people are not following the process.” In the case of the Kalispell district, numerous presentations were given at school board meetings at least since last January. I know because I was in the room at those meetings. As an interested and concerned taxpayer, I made it my business to know what was going on. The documents, reports, spreadsheets, etc. that were presented to justify the proposed mill levy are all public record and may be examined online at the district’s website. Moreover, at every school board meeting there is an item on the agenda for public comment on any issue. A person who speaks must state his/her name. I don’t recall hearing any comment from Mr. Agather.

Fifth, Mr. Agather claims that school districts are “coached by professionals” on how to influence the outcome of elections. He offers no specifics or evidence to support this claim, but if it were true and could be proven, the school district administrators and trustees would be subject to prosecution under Montana law. There are a number of laws and regulations which forbid this. I suggest Mr. Agather begin by examining MCA 2-2-121(3), which I quote in part: “A public officer or public employee may not use public time, facilities, equipment, supplies, personnel, or funds to solicit support for or opposition to any political committee, the nomination or election of any person to public office, or the passage of a ballot issue.”

In fact, the Montana School Boards Association has a 21-page document called the Montana Education Law Review (MLER) which spells out in great detail what can and cannot be done in presenting a school election to the voters. The key instruction in this document appears on p. 15: “Written material prepared or distributed by public employees must be impartial. Impartial means equitable, fair, unbiased and dispassionate. The material needs to contain a balance of factual information. This means that the material cannot lead the voters to support or oppose the measure by selective use of factual material, even if the material does not expressly urge a yes or no vote. The material may be determined to be advocacy if, when read in its entirety, it appears to be intended to generate votes for or against the measure.” School districts take these laws and regulations so seriously that they have their election announcements reviewed by both district and state lawyers before making them public. Thus, I believe that Mr. Agather’s claims of school districts conspiring and colluding to influence a school election are unsupportable and probably false.

I’ll offer a little more information to address Mr. Agather’s concerns about process and efficiency. The Kalispell district saw this crisis coming months ago after the state legislature cut school funding. They assembled a team of 27 administrators and principals who reviewed 6,040 line items in 23 budget categories and cut $800,000 from the current budget. That left them short approximately $2.5 million dollars for operating expenses. They tapped every possible funding source they could find and decided to ask the voters for only $1 million, a bare-bones request necessary to open Rankin Elementary and perform essential repairs at the other schools. Again, all of this was presented at public meetings and remains available for public examination on the district’s website.

In conclusion, I thank the editors of the Daily Inter Lake for publishing Mr. Agather’s letter. If I had attempted to come up with all the misconceptions and delusions about school elections that the public might imagine, I could not have done better than Mr. Agather. His letter provides a perfect opportunity to set the facts straight.

Merchant is a resident of Kalispell.

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