A town hall meeting at Daly School Monday evening ended with Hamilton School District trustees asking a largely sympathetic audience to spread the word about the need to pass a pair of proposed school levies.
Trustees also sought to address criticisms about school funding elections they see as local myths.
"We need some serious public relations help," said trustee Kelly Rogers of the push to rally support for the levies.
At stake is a May 4 election in which Hamilton School District voters will consider two levy requests:
• A $235,000 technology levy, an annual tax that will pool money solely for use in "purchasing, renting, repairing and maintaining technological equipment, including computers and computer network access, software licenses/fees, connectivity, internet/network security and safety, and the associated training for school personnel";
• A $1 million building reserve levy, a five-year, $200,000-per-year collection that will enable the district to complete deferred maintenance on school district buildings.
Currently the district primarily pays for computers and related expenses, as well as telephone systems and other technology, out of the general fund. With an annual tech levy of $235,000 the district would have money set aside to keep its software licensing up to date and rotate its computers through a five-year replacement cycle.
The building reserve fund levy would collect funds solely to address the most immediate repairs on a district-wide deferred maintenance list that Hamilton Superintendent Duby Santee said tops out at over $2 million. Among those items near the top of the must-do list are asbestos and a sewer line problem at Daly School, and heating and ventilation at Washington School.
Though Monday's turnout of two dozen or so consisted mostly of district employees, Rogers addressed the issue that has derailed other levy requests in Hamilton in the past decade or so.
"The community doesn't trust the school district and they don't trust the school board, it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with any of us personally but that's just the way it is," Rogers said, referring to a subsequent backlash over the 1998 passage of the $10 million bond to build Hamilton High School.
The accusation that is often repeated - in letters to the editor and in online readers' comments, though not by anyone at Monday's meeting - goes something like this: the sales pitch to build a new high school was founded on the district's misrepresentation of the dire need to move the high school out of the building that now houses the junior high school.
The fact that middle school students have attended classes in a building that was then pitched as unfit is given as evidence that a bait and switch was used to dupe taxpayers into funding the new building.
But trustee Tom Pool dismissed the argument, saying the bond put before voters contained clear language that some money would also be spent to repair the old high school and bring it up to code for district use.
"It's kind of one of those urban legends and it's gotten a little out of hand I think," Pool said. "There never was any misappropriation of funds."
Trustee Dave Bedey said he wished some of the district's detractors and others who are simply opposed to additional levies would come out and discuss the issues facing the district.
"I'd like to be able to talk to some of them face to face rather than just replying to their screen name," Bedey said.
Despite all the talk of negative perceptions, the district and its levy requests received a tacit endorsement from Montana Rep. Bob Lake, who is now running for Senate District 44, with Lake calling Hamilton one of the most efficiently run school districts in the state.
Lake also linked the effort to keep the district's technology current to the newly created Montana Digital Academy, an on-line program funded by the 2009 Legislature as a two-year pilot project. The idea is to offer courses online that might not be available to some students - Lake used German classes as an example - which would be taught by Montana certified teachers.
"We do need to have technology in place to be able to get on and be working with [the Montana Digital Academy] in real time," Lake said. "You can't do that with a 5-year-old [computer]."
As the meeting continued, Rogers again addressed the notion that voters suspect the district of playing fast and loose with taxpayer funds.
"This is a tech levy and it can't be used for anything but technology," Rogers said. "And the building reserve levy can't be used for anything but the buildings. This won't get lost or swallowed up by the general fund."
One audience member wondered about "checks and balances" to reassure district residents that the levy funds actually get spent for their intended purposes.
Beyond the fact that a voter-passed levy would legally bind the district to spend those funds for the purposes expressed on the ballot, there were a number of suggestions for how residents could track district finances: drop in and visit with the superintendent to discuss the district's public financial records; keep an eye out for the annual independent audit of district books; elect people you trust to the school board; and attend monthly meetings of the school board, as well as those of its finance and buildings and grounds committees.
"That is three meetings that people can come to and, like I said before, hold our feet to the fire," board chair Jim Shea said.
Some of that sort of pressure has already been applied, Shea said, coming from people asking if there isn't another way for the district to address its backlog of building maintenance and repairs.
With some grant money available for schools' infrastructure, Shea said a lot of people point to grants as a way out. With $1.1 million Montana Quality Schools grant request from Hamilton currently under consideration, Shea said the district is already trying that approach.
"We are being more and more aggressive on grants," he said.
But with $90 million in statewide requests aimed at $11 million in Montana Quality Schools money that will be coming from Helena, Shea said "it's not that easy."
As for the building reserve fund, Santee said the need to address issues such as asbestos cannot be left to slide, no matter what happens with grant requests or the May 4 election.
"However we get the money, this school is still a priority," Santee said, referring to Daly School.
Others made their pitch that voters should also see sustainable funding for technology as a major educational priority.
With a slew of Web-based programs changing the teaching landscape, the district should focus on maintaining the technological infrastructure to allow teachers and students to take advantage of those resources, said Kathleen Dent, Hamilton School District's curriculum coordinator and principal at Grantsdale School.
Given that the relationship between education and technology has expanded exponentially, that commitment starts with the computers and bandwidth required to make those new teaching tools work, Dent said.
"It all has to do with how teaching itself is changing, as well as how learning is changing," Dent said. "We have to keep our teachers in that loop. That's really important."
A similar technology levy effort failed to pass in 2008, when the district twice asked voters to approve a technology fund. The first request was for a $300,000 annually assessed levy. Six months later, by slightly more than 200 votes, voters turned down a $178,000 levy for technology spending.
When voters decide on May 4 if they think the current levies are the best way to address the twin priorities the district laid out on Monday night, they can weigh the estimated cost of the two measures:
• The annual $235,000 technology levy would amount to an increase in local taxes of approximately $19.78 per year for a home with a market value of $100,000;
• The five-year run for the $1 million building reserve levy would increase local taxes approximately $16.33 per year for a home with a market value of $100,000.
Both Bedey and Pool said they hoped that voters would take into account the fact that Hamilton School District was running a tight ship and is not wasting taxpayer money.
"We are being prudent with tax dollars," Bedey said, emphasizing that $1 million for the building reserve fund is less than half of what the district would need to address all of the problems on its deferred maintenance list. "And a five-year replacement cycle on computers is pretty conservative."
Reporter Sepp Jannotta can be reached at 363-3300 or email@example.com.