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Young students raise hands in a classroom at school

The first election of the season has begun. Ballots for the May 8 school elections have already been mailed to Missoula County voters. Registered voters who haven’t received a ballot should contact the Missoula County Elections Office right away to make sure they don’t miss their chance to help guide local public schools — and have a say in property taxes.

Every vote counts when it comes to the local-est of election matters — school districts. Here’s where individual votes have the most power, yet this ability to exercise such direct influence is seldom reflected by turnout. During last year’s school elections, for instance, only about 17,100 ballots were returned — out of more than 53,600 registered voters — for a disappointing turnout of about 20 percent. The outcome was determined by only a few thousand voters who, happily, opted to continue a long tradition of support for Missoula’s public schools.

Last year, those who live in the Missoula County Public Schools elementary district voted to add about $20 more per year to their property taxes for every $200,000 in property value, raising a total of $800,000 for teacher salaries, instructional materials and basic utilities. There was no levy request for the high school district.

And of course, in 2015 Missoula voters approved $158 million in bond levies to significantly renovate some aging schools and build new ones, a major undertaking meant to enhance safety and provide for students’ educational needs well into the future.

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Now, voters are being asked to decide whether to approve minimal general fund levy increases for both the elementary and high school districts. Before making that decision, there are a few important things for tax-weary voters to keep in mind.

Chief among these may be the fact that a building reserve levy for the high school district is sunsetting, which means property owners will see an overall tax decrease of more than $4 per year for every $200,000 in property value. The requested levy increase, on the other hand, is for just $2.25 a year for every $200,000 in assessed value — so high school district homeowners will get a tax decrease even if the new levy request passes.

MCPS is making the request because it anticipates an operational cost increase of nearly $170,000 for its high schools. Meanwhile, the elementary district, which overlaps the high school district, is hoping to raise $305,000 with its levy request, which would raise property taxes by about $7 per year for every $200,000 in property value.

If both levies pass, the total tax increase will be just $5.38 per year for those living in both districts. Even combined with all the other levies paid by elementary district residents, the total increase comes to less than $10 a year. That’s a scant amount to pay to keep Missoula’s students at the head of the class for graduation rates and academic achievement.

Of course, Missoula property owners are well aware of just how quickly little taxes can add up. Unfortunately, state legislators have opted not to provide much in the way of property tax relief, leaving Montana’s smaller communities to pick up the slack. These days, levies account for about 20 percent of MCPS’s overall budget.

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For the past 17 years, Missoula voters have approved levies to help the school district pay for operational expenses not covered by the state, recognizing that the district’s continued growth, as well as the rising price of goods and services, requires a corresponding increase in school budgets. These levies simply allow the schools to maintain programs and staff at their current levels, even as enrollment grows.

Elementary and middle school enrollment has increased by more than 600 students, or 12 percent, since 2011, while enrollment in Missoula’s high schools has increased by more than 100 students in the past three years alone. MCPS now includes more than 9,200 students at its includes nine elementary schools and three middle schools, four high schools and an alternative high school program.

It says something about the quality of Missoula schools that despite this growth, students continue to perform above average on state and national assessments, win state and national awards, and graduate at higher rates. Every Missoula voter and taxpayer who supports the levies that make it possible for students to get a first-rate education can share our pride in these achievements.

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Missoula County voters in other school districts are also facing questions or whether to approve levy requests and elect school board trustees.

• Lolo School District — trustee election and levy proposition.

• Bonner School District — new technology levy.

• DeSmet School District- trustee election and building reserve levy.

• Frenchtown School District — trustee election.

• Target Range — trustee election.

• Potomac school District — trustee election.

Special elections in Seeley Lake include the election of two rural fire district board trustees and three sewer district directors.

Voters in the Missoula County Public School elementary and high school districts should be sure to mark their ballots “for” each of the levies — and be sure to return those ballots by May 8.

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