Hamilton High School

Hamilton High School.

This week Hamilton School District residents will receive mail-in ballots for the election of two candidates for the HSD3 Board of Trustees.

The two incumbent trustees standing for re-election are being challenged by three new candidates. Election Day is May 2.

Another school voting campaign is also being energized, leading to a May 25“Special School Election,” asking voter approval for two steep requests for money. The first request is for a perpetual “general fund” tax levy” of $400,000. The second request is for a tax to pay for a new bond in the amount of $9.75 million dollars.

The bond has two purposes: the “expansion and remodel” of Daly Elementary School; also the construction of a new football field and track at Hamilton High School.

Since 2003, voters have approved three permanent tax levies (in ’03, ’05, and ’14) for a total of $1,213,460. This amount comes into the school district’s operating budget every year, and will continue. The board of trustees is now asking voters to approve a new general fund tax levy in the amount of $400,000, every year from now on.

The proposed new bond issue is somewhat complicated to analyze, because one has to understand the history of the previous bond. In 1997 voters approved the issuance of a bond in the amount of $13,600,000 to build the new Hamilton High School and “improve and remodel” the buildings on 5th St. so that would become the middle school.

Bonds, of course, must be paid back with “interest” to the investors. The high school bond was refinanced in 2009, at which time about $6 million had been paid back, plus interest. Every year the school district pays (with tax money) part of the principal and part of the interest accruing.

The year 2018 is important, because, after twenty years, the bond debt will finally be paid off in full. In the last year of the debt (between July ’17 and July ’18) the school district will pay the last installment to the principal of $990,000; and will also make a final interest payment of $34,650. In the past 9 years, the school district has paid $1,170,000 in interest on the high school bond, in addition to more that a million dollars in interest in the first 11 years of the bond.

Why is this important to know? The reason is that the cost to tax payers is considerably higher than the ballot shows. The May 25 ballot will ask voters to approve a bond in its face value of $9,750,000 dollars. Although the “debt service schedule” for this bond has not yet been determined exactly, by a close estimate the interest will be about $4 million (over 20 years, but more if the debt schedule is 30 years).

So when the public sees ballot language stating the bond is for $9,750,000, they should realize that the actual cost, including interest, will be more than $13 million.

The school superintendent, Mr. Tom Korst, the board chairman, Mr. Dave Bedey, and the other trustees (except Mr. Patrick Hanley, who voted against this bond resolution) have an aggressive and positive way of presenting this bond. They see a rare opportunity in 2018. The old bond will be paid off; and so the trustees can put a new bond in its place.

The trustees can also add a new tax levy ($400,000 annually). But property owners’ taxes will remain almost exactly the same.

Is this not a good opportunity for HSD3 tax payers — because a great amount of new money does become available for the school board’s grand plans, but without increasing the tax amount?

In my view, this is not opportunity, but rather sheer “opportunism” on the part of the superintendent and board. Opportunism is the exploiting of circumstances to gain an immediate advantage in order to accomplish goals of doubtful value.

Part of the bond is $6 million for “Daly K-4 up-grades.” This includes new classrooms for Daly for kindergarten and first grade. This is “opportunism,” because voters have not yet approved the closing of Washington Primary School. The superintendent and board are making a tactical maneuver, forcing the sale of Washington; for when new classrooms are ready for youngest students, of course Washington school has no purpose, except to sold.

The extreme of “opportunism” is directing $3,750,000 of bond money towards the “relocation of Haynes Field” (and track) to the high school property. When interest payments are included (publicity materials from the school board are silent about “interest” charges) the actual cost over 20 years will be more than $5,250,000.

The idea that Haynes field shall be “relocated” is “magical thinking” because a field does not move. The exaggerating publicity materials from the school board — their salesmanship — claim that a that new football field is a “responsible investment,” because, as Mr. Korst showed in a “Power Point” at a town-hall meeting (March 1st): “renovation nearly as much as building new.” I find that assertion is not credible.

At the same town-hall meeting, principal Dan Kimsey and coach Travis Blome agreed that Haynes Field is probably the most scenic site for high school football in all of Montana. Is it one of the better fields? Probably not. But it’s the field we have.

In recent years (’06-’09) the Corvallis School District constructed a football field and track-and-field that might be the best in the Bitterroot Valley. The Corvallis athletic field was created by the responsible plans, generous contributions, and real labor of Corvallis residents and local businesses. There was no special tax levy and no bond funding to accomplish that goal.

It is not possible to separate the part of the bond issue for “Daly K-4 Upgrades” and the part of the bond for Haynes field “relocation.” They are locked together. Unless informed voters wish to spend between 13 and 14 million dollars (principal and interest over 20 years), they should vote against this bond. If the bond fails, school district property taxes will significantly decrease after 2018, when the 1997 high school bond finally expires.

And voters should also consider voting against the permanent $400,000 tax level.

Why? Because the levy is part of the opportunistic plan of the superintendent and trustees to shove forward the same tax burden for another twenty years.

Now choosing two out of the three new candidates who have come forward, we must start gradually to replace some of the current trustees. A year from now (or two or three years from now) a new board, thinking along with our very sensible and responsible principals and our fine teachers, might be ready to advance new, realistic plans, so that our schools, in all their dimensions including athletics, are always improving.

– Frank Laurence, Hamilton