It is evident that Frank Laurence has strong opinions about what is best for our schools and for the Hamilton School District’s taxpayers. That I do not begrudge him. But in his latest column to appear in this paper, he launched an attack on the District’s superintendent and on members of the school board that cannot go unanswered.
Surely Mr. Laurence must understand that charging us with practicing “opportunism” is an assault on our integrity. Perhaps he thinks besmirching our character is a way of strengthening his incomplete analysis of the District’s condition and of the proposal the board is putting before the voters.
Contra Mr. Laurence, the matter being placed before voters in May represents an opportunity not for the superintendent or the board, but rather for the citizens of the Hamilton School District.
Over the years I have served on the board, I can assure you that the following three principles have guided our fiscal decisions:
First, we insist that the District be managed in an efficient, business-like manner and will not consider asking taxpayers to contribute more for the schools unless we are confident that this is the case. To this end, the District has reduced its operating expenses by a million dollars over the past five years and will be cutting another $300,000 next year. Our talented superintendent has managed all of this while improving educational programs across the board.
Second, we are reluctant to ask for increased taxpayer support unless we can clearly define the purpose for which these tax dollars will be spent. We delivered on all the promises made when the last general fund levy was passed in 2014 and as a consequence now offer our students superior college-preparation courses and credential-granting vocational programs. It should be no surprise that the District has received national recognition for the quality of its programs.
And third, we recognize our accountability to the public and strive to provide accurate information so voters can make informed decisions about our community’s schools. And this brings me to what I would really like to talk to you about.
Due to declining enrollment driven by a decline in the school-age population, the District’s funding is falling more rapidly than it can cut expenses without harming its educational programs. This situation will be managed next school year by not replacing retiring teachers. But the problem becomes acute two years from now. Starting in school year 2018-2019, the District will be forced to reduce or cut some of its programs, unless additional funding is forthcoming.
Another challenge facing the District is its ability to continue to attract and retain excellent teachers. Unfortunately, Hamilton’s teacher compensation is now at or near the bottom when compared to our competitors within the relevant labor market, i.e., Western Division Class A school districts. This circumstance is not sustainable in the long run, unless we are willing to accept a reduction in the quality of the District’s educational programs.
To address the District’s immediate challenges and also to provide for the District’s future health, the superintendent has recommended, and the board has endorsed, a balanced solution: asking voters to approve a $9.75-million building bond and a $400,000 fund general fund levy. The revenue from the general fund levy will be used to maintain, and where possible to improve, our current educational programs. The bond is for relocating the football field and track from Haynes Field to the current high school campus and for expanding Daly School (to include constructing an adequate gym). This is good business because it will allow for more efficient use of the District’s facilities, thus freeing up operating funds for other purposes, and for improvement of both our educational and extracurricular programs.
Conscious of the stress that taxes place on property owners, the District’s proposal has been designed to have zero net effect on taxpayers.
Here is how the math works: The annual tax for the general fund levy and debt service on the facilities bond together would be about $950,000, which is slightly less than what taxpayers are currently paying on the high school bond. Should the voters approve the District’s proposal, the board will not start levying the tax until after the high school bond is retired at the end of school year 2017-2018. Thus, the District’s proposal is “tax neutral” because it is an opportunity for the community to shore up its schools without increasing the level of voted tax dollars it has already been providing the District. (As to Mr. Laurence tallying up of interest on the facilities bond, I can only say that most of us would be renters if we weren’t willing to make mortgage interest payments and that the alternative to funding a school facility via debt service on a bond is to pay cash up front, which to put it mildly would be unpalatable to taxpayers.)
The Hamilton School District’s citizens should be proud of the proven, high-quality educational programs they support for the children of the community. But in a small town like ours, the schools do more than educate children.
They are the venues for the performing arts and for sporting events. They also provide the community recreational spaces such as baseball fields, soccer fields and tennis courts. And the quality of the local schools can be a driver for economic growth. I am told that many small businesses depend on sales generated when the District hosts athletic tournaments. School quality is also a major consideration, maybe the main consideration, when a business chooses a location or when people, such as medical professionals at Marcus Daly or scientists at Rocky Mountain Laboratories, choose where to live and work. People want to see high quality programs and good facilities.
The economic well-being of the community and quality of its schools go hand-in-hand. And the better off the community is economically, the broader is its tax base—which is a good thing for individual taxpayers.
This levy and bond proposal is aimed at supporting our community in all three ways: providing excellent education of our children, providing venues for entertainment and recreation, and promoting economic growth. But to be fair, it must be said that if the bond and levy proposition fails at the ballot box, there will be a modest reduction in property taxes, starting for school year 2018-2019.
In May, each voter will need to weigh the merits of the District’s proposal against the benefit of a tax decrease. The school board’s job is to provide voters with the facts they need to make an informed decision—whatever that decision might be.
If you have questions on this matter, I encourage you to visit the District’s website and to attend our next public meeting, which will be at 6:30-8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 3, at Daly School.
– David Bedey, Chairman, HSD#3 Board of Trustees