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SUMMARY: Voters' treatment of upcoming school levies will help measure public sentiment about the adequacy of school funding in Montana.

It's hard to see next week's school elections as anything other than a plebiscite on Montana's funding of education.

School districts throughout the state - an unusually large number - will go to the polls May 8, asking voters to approve property tax levies augmenting local school budgets.

The election results will be especially interesting, coming on the heels of a difficult session for the Legislature, in which the adequacy of education spending ranked among the most divisive issues.

Do Montanans consider education a priority? Voter turnout may give us some clue. Typically, school elections are among the least-attended of civic affairs.

Are we adequately funding our schools? Or is there a consensus that the schools are underfunded? There's nothing like asking people to put their money where their mouths are to find out what they really believe.

Voted school levies are a small but important part of many schools' budgets. The bulk of school funding comes from the state, based on enrollment according to appropriations made by the Legislature. Another chunk comes from the federal government. What voters wind up deciding is whether to provide an incremental increase in funding. Still, those increments can be important. For example, Missoula County Public School voters will effectively be deciding whether to keep or cut more than two dozen teachers and other educators in elementary classrooms and nearly a dozen others in the high schools. The cost could add perhaps $30 to $40 a year to a typical homeowner's tax bill.

School levies also are one of the few opportunities people have to directly vote on taxes. Even though the actual amount at issue generally is relatively small, in contrast to overall school spending and overall taxes, these levies are seen by some taxpayers as an opportunity to "send a message."

What's that message going to be? Some communities, such as Missoula, consistently pass school levies. Some school districts rarely go to voters. This year, with a majority of Montana school districts expecting less state funding due to declining enrollments, an unusually large number of communities are facing levy requests.

Although circumstances vary from district to district, in general, the upcoming elections should help tell us whether Montanans are comfortable with current levels of school funding, or whether they're willing to pay more.

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