Severe cuts in programs, teaching positions avoided
Voters in Missoula's largest school district passed two mill levies Tuesday, giving school officials the dollars to undo substantial cuts they had expected to make in teaching positions and programs, including gifted education.
The elementary levy for $518,403 passed by a vote of 4,520-3,414. The secondary levy for $523,661 was approved by a vote of 6,149-5,369.
"It means we'll be able to put back staffing," said Mary Vagner, Missoula County Public Schools superintendent. "We'll begin that effort tomorrow."
Vagner thanked the community for the financial support.
"This is incredible financial support from the community," she said. Turnout was about 21 percent of eligible voters.
According to figures and staffing scenarios recently reviewed by the Missoula County Public Schools board of trustees, passage of the elementary levy coupled with new state funding will allow the district to restore 18.42 classroom positions out of the 21 posts that school officials originally had expected they would have to eliminate.
School officials are expected to restore three teachers for gifted education, 1.5 special education teaching positions and one aide, and teachers of music, art and physical education. The district also will staff a part-time speech therapist and behavioral specialist to work with a growing population of students diagnosed as autistic and suffering from Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism.
The elementary levy will cause taxes on a $100,000 home to increase by about $22.75 per year.
At the high-school level, the $523,661 secondary levy coupled with state funding increases will allow the district to retain all 19 teachers that were targeted for cuts, another two educators for the Alternative Education Program and behavioral support to serve autistic children with Asperger's syndrome.
The high-school levy would increase the taxes on a $100,000 home by about $14.52 per year.
Other school districts in the Missoula area also asked their local voters to support mill levies Tuesday, or they too would face similar cuts to staffing and programs.
Increasing costs for electricity, natural gas, insurance, supplies, staffing and general maintenance were the main reasons why they requested additional dollars for their budgets.
In every case, Missoula County voters said "yes."
At Hellgate Elementary, voters approved a $212,908 mill levy for operation and maintenance by a tally of 384-344. Only $140,251 of that actually is a new levy; voters approved $72,657 of it last year but the district never assessed it because the Legislature gave additional dollars to education in the 1999 special session.
Although the $72,657 is approved, state law required the district to show both figures combined as the mill levy Tuesday, hence the $212,908 figure on the ballot.
If the levy had failed, Hellgate Elementary officials had said the smaller budget would have triggered layoffs, adjustments to academic and activity offerings and larger class sizes.
"We're very happy and very grateful to the voters," said Doug Reisig, Hellgate Elementary superintendent.
The levy passage means the taxes on a $100,000 home in the Hellgate Elementary District will increase by about $42.65 per year.
At Lolo, the school board sought voter approval of a $145,466 mill levy. Preliminary election returns showed the mill levy passed by 328-268. About $45,700 of the mill levy was part of a levy voters approved last year that the district didn't assess, but must show in this year's new funding request of about $99,766.
School officials said the new levy was needed to maintain current programs, pay for increases in energy costs and hire one more sixth-grade teacher to relieve next year's projected high teacher-student ratio. Under current staffing, next year's two sixth-grade classes would have 43 students per class unless a teacher is transferred from another grade level, thus creating a larger class size there.
The combined levies totaling $145,466 will increase the school tax on a home with a market value of $127,000 by about $71 for a year.
At Target Range School, voters approved a building reserve levy of $39,000, the same amount they requested and voters approved last year, by a vote of 452-310. The money will allow the district to make its annual roof payment, replace non-energy-efficient windows and broken lunchroom tables and make other repairs. The levy will increase the taxes on a $100,000 home by $14 per year or about $1.15 per month.
The district also sought and received voter approval for a $130,177 general fund levy, although only $88,000 of it actually was a new levy request. Voters approved the request 428-330. The other $42,177 was approved last year but, like Hellgate Elementary, the district didn't assess it because of an increase the state gave to education during the 1999 special legislative session.
School taxes on a $100,000 home will climb by $47 per year - about $3.91 per month.