Budgets are tight, but they have nothing on the school levy elections in Mineral County.
Alberton's passed last week by one vote. Superior's passed by two.
"I did feel it was going to be close because we received over 180 absentee ballot requests. That usually gives you an idea," said Alberton school superintendent Jim Baldwin, who sweated out the district's 93-92 vote squeaker for a levy of $47,526 on election night. "It's always more difficult to get a mail ballot passed than a regular polling ballot."
Superior was seeking a $50,000 general fund levy. When ballots were tallied, 192 voters in the school district said OK and 190 disagreed.
They were counted three times on election night, and each count resulted in the same tally.
Recounts on school levies aren't mandatory, but they're possible by petition if the margin is within one-quarter of 1 percent of the total votes or 10 votes or fewer. Both Mineral County elections qualify under either stipulation.
A recount petition must have at least 10 signatures and be filed within five school days of canvassing by the school board, the act that makes the vote official. Superior trustees canvassed on election night, so the deadline for a petition is Tuesday.
Alberton's board was expected to canvass Monday night at its regularly scheduled May meeting.
Superior and Alberton are two of the three K-12 districts in one of the most cash-strapped counties in Montana. St. Regis didn't try for a levy.
High school principal Allan Labbe said Superior hasn't failed to pass a levy in about 20 years, though this was the closest call yet.
The district needed the $50,000 to help continue a highly successful program, one that supports corrective math and reading programs in the high school and a remedial reading program in the elementary school.
"We're seeing some improvements in scores that are unbelievable, and we wanted to keep it going," Labbe said.
He said he believes the community understands the value of the programs, despite the levy's close call.
"It's never been about dissatisfaction with our school. This is about people's ability to pay that extra little bit. You've got to respect them for supporting our school district," he said.
Superior got additional good news last Friday when Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed a bill into law for school improvement grants. It will allow Superior to add new locker rooms and a foyer to the high school. Labbe said roughly $100,000 of the $522,000 project will come from the school's building fund, so taxpayers won't be asked for any more.
Baldwin said he understands the economic crunch people are under. Just up the road, voters uncharacteristically defeated a general fund levy at a Frenchtown district still reeling from the closure of Smurfit-Stone's paper mill last year.
Alberton, too, was affected by that closure.
"It's a tough time right now for everybody, and we understand that," Baldwin said. "And none of us, still to this date, are sure what's coming out of the Legislature."
Alberton's enrollment has been in steady decline, from as many as 240 students K-12 in 1999-2000 to 153 this year. The $47,526 levy was exactly what the district needs to make up for lost state funding due to the decline.
This is only the second general fund levy the school has attempted since Baldwin came 13 years ago.
"It wasn't extra money for a special project that came out of the blue," he said.
Despite the uncertainties in the Legislature and the levy, Alberton hired all its entire teaching staff back for next year - 17 full-time and four part-time teachers.
Baldwin has a couple of administrative assistants who also teach classes, but there are no principals to share the administration load. Some teachers already went part-time to help make ends meet.
Alberton teachers have a clause in their contract that says they can't lose their jobs unless there's a $100,000 budget shortfall, Baldwin said.
"There are a few non-certified employees that I'm recommending (laying off) even with the passage of the mill levy," Baldwin said. "About all we have left now if we have to start making any cuts is combining elementary classes. So far we've stayed away from combination classes."
Even though the levy vote couldn't have been closer, it still passed, Baldwin said.
"That says a lot for the community," he said. "We know it's a difficult time for everybody, and everybody at the school appreciates the support. The board and myself have tried to keep costs down as much as possible."
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.