BUTTE, MT - How do you make a decision on an issue that will introduce consequences whichever way you go?

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That's the question many voters ask themselves as they walk into the polling booths this Tuesday, as the voting begins for whether to approve or not the proposed levies for schools across Montana, including Butte's very own JFK Elementary School and Butte High School. How much cash are the proposed levies supposed to raise? What about other schools in Montana? What does this mean and what are the implications for Montana educational systems? What are levies? And what are the consequences for both sides?

Here's a complete guide to help you make your decision about levies here in Montana.

First things first: what are levies?

When you hear that "Montana schools are hoping to pass levies," what does that really mean? Well, a "levy" generally refers to a type of tax imposed by a government on property owners. In the context of schools, a levy usually means a local property tax specifically designated to fund school districts. These levies require approval from local voters, and they are often critical for the funding of schools, especially in areas where state or federal funding is insufficient like many school districts say occurs here in Montana.

So, put simply: passing the a proposed levy means schools get more money from increasing property taxes in the area if your home is valued in a certain bracket.

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Breaking down the costs and what the schools are asking for

In Butte, there are two schools proposing levies to be passed: Kennedy Elementary School and Butte High School. Kennedy Elementary's levy is proposed for $200,000, while Butte High's levy is proposed for $850,000. School districts may propose a levy to voters when they need additional funds to maintain current programs, reduce class sizes, update technology, or improve facilities, though in this case:

  • Kennedy Elementary says they would use the additional funds for operational costs
  • Butte High says they would use the additional funds for safety improvements

If Kennedy's levy is passed, there will be just over a $3.00 increase to the property taxes for homeowners whose home is valued at $100,000 or more. If Butte High's is passed, there would be just over an $11.00 increase to the property taxes for homeowners in the same bracket. Both may sound like a lot, and depending on the homeowner's situation, it can be a large impact to their finances. So let's take a look at what the implications of both are.

The consequences for passing or denying the proposed levies

First, let's explore the positives and negatives for the current proposed levies passing.

If passed, Kennedy Elementary proposes to use the $200,000 for operational costs. School levies can be used for different operational purposes, which include salaries, utilities, and materials, or for capital expenditures like new buildings and major repairs. Additionally, school districts may propose a levy to voters when they need additional funds to maintain current programs, reduce class sizes, update technology, or improve facilities. The failure to pass a levy can result in budget cuts, which might lead to larger class sizes, reduced school services, and layoffs of school staff.

If passed for Butte High, the funds are proposed to be used for safety improvements. Common safety improvements for high schools generally include the hiring of security personnel, installing new technology for social media analytics and surveillance equipment, securing entryways and infrastructure, and additional safety systems (drills, training, emergency communication systems, etc.).

However, using the levies for the proposed functions may not always occur. And here we get into what opponents of the levies argue:

  1. Financial Burden on Property Owners: Opponents often point out that levies increase property taxes (in this case a little over $14.00 if both are passed), which can be a significant financial burden for homeowners, particularly those on fixed incomes such as retirees and veterans.
  2. Transparency and Spending Concerns: Some may question the transparency and accountability of how funds are spent, as there is sometimes no direct way to tell how the funds are being used. Misallocation of funds and embezzlement, though not incredibly common, have occurred in the past across America using levy proposals.
  3. Potential Lack of Results: Critics might claim that past increases in funding have not adequately improved educational outcomes, suggesting that throwing more money at the problem isn't the solution.
  4. The Underwhelming Impact: Specific types of levies, like capital levies for building projects, might be seen as not directly benefiting the educational quality or student performance. Critics site how building new, pretty buildings increases the value of the school themselves and not the education of the students.
  5. Exploring Alternative Funding: Some may argue that alternative funding solutions should be explored before increasing taxes, such as seeking more funding from state or federal sources, or increasing community partnerships.

What about other schools in Montana?

School districts across Southeastern Montana have said they've reached a point of desperation, as reported by KXLF. Budget issues across the region has resulted in many schools being forced to cut programs and let go many of their staff. Furthermore, they argue the levies not only help their staff make a salary that keeps up with the rising cost of living in the U.S., but also helps literally keep the lights on.

What about state funding? The school districts have said that their annual budgets have stayed stagnant and have failed to keep up with the skyrocketing costs of operations, programs, salaries, and virtually everything a school needs.

Recent proposed levies in Montana

In May 2023, voters in western Montana—including areas like Missoula and Helena—approved various school funding levies. These levies were intended for safety improvements, maintenance, and general fund purposes in local schools. However, there were mixed results in Kalispell, where voters approved funding for elementary schools but rejected a high school general fund levy​. These garnered massive community support, though I couldn't find information on the effectiveness of these approvals since they were passed.

So what's the bottom line?

When you're placing your vote at the booth, deciding whether or not to support the proposed levies for our schools, you may want to consider the following questions:

  • How are the proposed levies supposed to help the school?
  • Do I trust the funds will be used in the way proposed?
  • How will this affect the community around me?
  • Do the schools have any other options?
  • What would help the children the most?

The older I get in this world, the more I understand that there are never any clear-cut answers, and there are consequences—good and bad—for every decision I make. Just know whatever you decide is the right decision as long as you're confident and as well-versed as you can be with the issue at hand.

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