Votes for school funding requests continue to fall short in Hamilton.
The school district saw two more levies defeated Tuesday when Hamilton voters said no to a technology levy and a building reserve fund levy. They are the latest defeats in a rocky record for levy requests in Hamilton.
Since the passage of a pair of 1997 bonds to build a new high school and repair existing facilities, voters in Hamilton have approved two levy requests out of 15 proposed. Passing six out of 25 since the mid-1990s, the district's batting average is .240.
The latest defeat drew an exasperated reaction from some on the Hamilton School Board.
"If people are voting no because they don't have enough money or don't like the product" it's understandable, said board chair Jim Shea. "But if they're going in there and not even looking at what we've put out there, which is what I thought this time... if they're voting no just because they don't like the public schools or what was done before, I have a hard time taking that."
Unofficial results show Hamilton voters defeated the $235,000 technology levy by a margin of 299 votes, or 1,311 to 1,012, and rejected the $1 million building reserve levy by 291 votes, or 1,309 to 1,018. At around 2,300 votes cast, according to Superintendent Duby Santee turnout in the Hamilton school election was over 25 percent.
Hamilton's no vote on levies comes as an overwhelming majority of school districts statewide approved school funding requests.
According to the Montana School Boards Association (MSBA), which surveys members each year to tally the results of levy elections, preliminary data has 79 percent of school districts voting yes on proposed levies. At high school levies, voters were even more favorable, passing 90 percent of those requests.
In an e-mail to members, MSBA Executive Director Lance Melton said most levies run this spring were addressing "a means of survival and mitigation of cuts rather than for new programs."
In Hamilton, the board will have to address the looming question: what now?
"We're kind of stymied here," Shea said, with admitted frustration.
Santee said without the ability to pay for technology out of an annually collected tax fund, he might recommend cutting out the use of web-based instruction options in kindergarten through fifth grade.
"We're going to have to look at limiting where we have technology and concentrating our resources where we think it's the most important," Santee said, pointing to programs at the middle and high school levels as more critical. "We really haven't settled on anything, but those are the options because we're just not going to be able to do it all."
The district's K-5 tech support position, which is currently paid for by Title 1 stimulus funds, will likely be terminated when those funds run out after next school year, Santee said.
"We need to contract ourselves, reduce what we're doing and narrow our focus," Santee said.
The picture is less cut and dried when it comes to how the district will proceed without the $1 million in building reserve funds voted down Tuesday.
One answer might be to enact a year-round school calendar for students at the K-5 level, Santee said.
Given that Washington School is potentially in need of $2.8 million in repairs and upgrades, Santee said the voters' apparent unwillingness to pass additional school funds might force the issue.
That plan, which would put all K-5 students at Daly School, would also free up the district to sell Washington and Grantsdale schools, a streamlining of resources that has been talked about for some time.
To accommodate the additional bodies at Daly, Santee said the school could operate on a quarterly calendar over 12 months of the year, with only three-quarters of the K-5 population attending in a given quarter.
"Beyond that there isn't a way to consolidate all those kids without spending a whole lot of money," Santee said. "And it doesn't look like people are inclined to do that."
But Shea said he thought perhaps voters would be more receptive of funding a new building at the Daly campus as part of a K-5 consolidation effort.
"Eventually we're going to have to build something," Shea said, though he admitted voters' recent record on funding schools will make any plan like that a tough sell.
Trustee Corrine Gantt said the finance committee planned to immediately start talks on the issue of ‘what now?' with regards to paying for repairing and upgrading the district's facilities.
"That's going to be the main topic of conversation," Gantt said. "We have some really pressing building issues that we have to deal with. We have to get that taken care of, though I'm not sure where that money is going to come from."
Gantt said she was dismayed that people didn't seem to understand that it was up to the residents of the community when it came to improving, or even maintaining, their kids' schools.
"I guess people don't understand that running levies is the only recourse we have because we're a tax-funded organization," Gantt said.
Gantt summed up her frustration by recalling that the trash bin at the Hamilton Post Office was overflowing with copies of a flyer explaining the rationale for the levies.
"It's been my experience that people don't know [how school funding works] and don't want to know," Gantt said. "If I'm coming off bitter, maybe I am. I feel badly for the kids we're trying to educate."
Reporter Sepp Jannotta can be reached at 363-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.