A Missoula businessman has taken to the airwaves to oppose elementary and high school mill levies that Missoula County Public Schools officials are proposing in the May 8 election.
Mike Halvorson, owner and operator of M & M Auto Sales in Missoula, has spent about $2,000 over the past couple weeks to run the advertisements on several radio stations during prime drive time.
His main gripes are the 9 percent pay increase that school officials approved for MCPS Superintendent Mary Vagner last fall, the closure of three neighborhood schools and what he calls a district top-heavy with administration.
Halvorson, 46, has organized an informational picket for noon, Monday, in front of the superintendent's office at 215 S. Sixth St. W., where he will make more information about the mill levy available to the public. The district is asking voters to approve a $518,403 elementary levy and a $523,661 secondary levy.
A Missoula resident and businessman since 1989, Halvorson said he represents the voice of the working class. Over the past 12 years, his property taxes have risen from $600 to $2,200, he said.
"It's time the working person in Missoula has a voice," he said. "I'm a mini Jesse (Ventura). I'm tired of government agencies continuing to grow. I can't afford it anymore."
It isn't the first time Halvorson has gone public with his political views. He also waged a campaign against a sales tax a few years ago, and spent about $12,000 on advertising to air his position, he said.
In his current ads, Halvorson suggests residents vote "no" on the MCPS school levies because, he said, the school district didn't inform the public the last time around - on a $20 million high school building bond levy - that it planned to close three schools or give the superintendent a hefty raise.
But in a follow-up interview Thursday, Halvorson admitted part of the ad is wrong in claiming school officials failed to tell voters ahead of the high school bond issue vote that they planned to close elementary schools.
Voters passed the bond issue on Feb. 15, 2000. The board decided to close Roosevelt, Emma Dickinson and Prescott schools in early 1999, after holding many public hearings. The decision to close Prescott was included in that decision, but the closure was postponed until this June. The board only reaffirmed that decision in December 2000.
Halvorson said he stands corrected, but still questions where the savings went from those school closures.
"They need to be held accountable and find the money within the system," he said. "We've closed three schools. Where did those funds go?"
Halvorson said money spent on administrative pay increases should have gone to boost teachers' salaries. Teachers, he said, only received a 3 percent pay increase. But that's another point of contention with school officials.
School Board Chairman Mike Kupilik couldn't be reached this week to comment on the radio ads, but trustees Jim Sadler, Rosemary Harrison and Jenda Cummings disagreed with some of the information being disseminated in Halvorson's ads.
"It's very inflammatory," said Sadler, school board vicechairman. "People should really seek the truth on it because children and education could be hurt. You have a right to say what you want but the facts should be correct."
Harrison also called the accuracy of the information into question and how it applies to the way the district operates.
The $20 million bond issue aimed to renovate and improve MCPS's four high schools and essentially will give them a facelift. It has no impact on the elementary district and those dollars can't be used for the elementary or high school general funds, Harrison said. It's a totally separate issue.
Almost all the money raised if residents support the two levies on May 8 will be used to put teachers back to work, Cummings said. If the levy fails, teachers and programs will be cut.
Since Halvorson's advertisements began airing, Harrison said, teachers in other districts, such as Hellgate Elementary, have told her they are concerned the radio ads may have a ripple effect and could negatively impact their mill levies.
"It's having a negative impact throughout the education community," Harrison said.
On the issue of pay raises, Harrison said it is important to remember Vagner volunteered to take no pay increase for the 1999-2000 school year. Her pay increase of $8,000 in the 2000-01 school year brought her salary to $95,377, an income that is in the ballpark for superintendent salaries in the Rocky Mountain region, she said. The average superintendent's salary in the Rocky Mountain region is $89,144, according to the Montana School Administrators. The average in the Southwest region is $129,905.
"There is a significant shortage of superintendents across the United States," Harrison said. "We have to remain competitive to attract and retain good people."
As for other pay increases, administrators received an average raise of about 4.9 percent last fall. Teachers got a base pay increase of 3 percent, 3.3 percent for the year after and 3.6 percent for two years down the road. But when other increases in the teachers' salary structure are taken into account, the increase actually totals about 4.9 percent as well, school officials said.
Administrative positions have been cut and those still working are taking on more duties, Harrison and Cummings said.
As for the school closures, the district saved $442,558 by closing Roosevelt and Emma Dickinson schools, Vagner said. The largest part of the savings, roughly $175,000, came through the elimination of 2 1/2 principals' positions. That included a half-time principal eliminated at Prescott School. The principal at Mount Jumbo now runs both schools.
Vagner hasn't heard Halvorson's advertisement, but she said he certainly has the right to free speech. She said the school district has worked diligently to inform the public on the needs within education programs.
"The state has to restructure how they fund schools," Vagner said. The impact on local property taxpayers is a tough impact, she said.
Halvorson knows he may lose customers over his ads. He doesn't want people to think he is anti-education or anti-schools. He supported the high school bond levy, he said. But he doesn't think school officials are disclosing the full picture to the public now and he doesn't believe the board will cut more teachers and programs if the levy fails.
"There are other places to cut," he said.
He'd start with the superintendent's salary and cut it to $60,000. He thinks a lot of people would apply for it.
Harrison said it's unlikely the district could get anyone qualified to fill the position for that salary.
"They'd be lining up a block long," Halvorson said. "I'd be willing to take that chance."