Shortly after Hamilton voters said no to two school levies last week the school board did what it threatened to do in such an eventuality: It cut five teachers from its high school and middle school staffs and eliminated middle school sports.
The board had asked voters to approve two separate levies, a general fund levy for $407,340 and a building reserve levy for $550,000 to be spread over five years.
Voter turnout was surprisingly high—47 percent—for a school election. But the real surprise—and disappointment for Superintendent Duane Lyons—was that the normally generous voters in the Hamilton school district rejected both. The heartening news was that those rejections came with relatively small margins. The operating levy failed by only 149 votes; the building reserve by 257.
Of the 198 school levies on ballots across the state on May 7, voters approved 187. Hamilton was one of only 11 school districts to see their levies rejected.
A clearly disappointed Lyons said he was surprised that voters turned down both levies. “So how do you feel when the truck hits you?” he asked.
Immediately following the election, the board cut five teachers: an English teacher and science teacher at the high school, and language, technology and reading teachers from the middle school. None of the teachers was tenured.
As a result, class sizes will increase and 12 classes previously offered will not be on the schedule next year. Advanced Placement chemistry and biology will either be offered every other year, or may be dropped altogether. Three pre-calculus classes will be reduced to two. Spanish at the middle school may have to be taught by a teacher holding only an elementary school teaching certificate with no expertise in Spanish.
Though Lyons says the district’s financial problems are the result of many factors, Montana School Board Association President Tonia Bloom points the finger squarely at the Legislature.
“The root cause is the way state funding is going, school districts can’t keep up without operating levies,” she says. When the Legislature cut business taxes to every business owner from the small dairy farmer to Montana Power Company, tax revenues to schools declined, she says. Now schools are looking to the only other source of money available: property taxes.
Lyons is unsure whether voters make the connection between legislative tax cuts and declining revenue for education. Or, there may be other issues that upset voters enough that they failed to support an operating levy. The board may choose to survey the public. But, Lyons says, “How many people will open it up and send it back I don’t know. It’s an opening salvo.”