Why did the $800,000+ school levy fail in Billings? One can never know why individual voters voted as they did in this extremely close election. Some voters are reflexively against any tax increase, others are reflexively for them.
The Montana Headlines household was basically in favor of the levy -- the most compelling argument for it is that funding for day to day operations and infrastructure aren't keeping pace with inflation, and that property taxes probably wouldn't go up as a result of the levy passing.
Yes, you read that right. Due to the screwed up way that school levies are done, there is a levy for a set amount of money, not for a percentage levy on property. In a growing city like Billings, where new houses are being built, new businesses are going up or increasing in value, etc., the amount of tax levy is spread out over more taxpayers and more valuable property as the years go by. The percentage of a piece of property's worth that is taken in taxation actually drops as time goes by, and sometimes the actual dollar value drops as well. The school district still gets the same amount of money every year, but in order to keep pace with inflation, new levies have to pass.
It was estimated that most property tax payers in Billings would not see a property tax increase as a result of this levy, especially since a bond issue is being retired this year. If taxes were levied as a percentage of property tax values or indexed for inflation or something (as many other levies are,) then schools wouldn't have to keep coming back repeatedly to ask for more money.
So what was the problem? As far as Montana Headlines is concerned, it can be summarized in three words: All Day Kindergarten. This is not to try to refight the kindergarten war itself, but to highlight the fact that the State of Montana and the education lobby were complicit in spending a whole lot of money on starting a new program at a time when that money should have been spent on existing, pressing needs.
Reading the Gazette article, note that much of what is having to be shuffled around in the proposed budget cuts made necessary by the failure of the levy is the kindergarten population. Whole buildings had to be opened in order to accommodate the increased kindergarten population that came about as a result of instituting all day kindergarten in Billings.
This isn't entirely the fault of the school district -- when the state dangles money in front of hungry administrators and school boards, it shouldn't be surprising that they take it, even if it makes no real sense for them to do so.
The governor and his Democratic-controlled legislature had money to throw at education, thanks to the huge budget surplus that Republican policies had created. They didn't see fit, however, to let school districts decide for themselves what their most pressing needs were. House Republicans couldn't even get Democrats to modify the language to allow school districts to spend the money on generic "early education programs," let alone let school districts decide for themselves where to spend that money.
No, if districts wanted to get that big chunk of money being dangled in front of them by the governor, they would need to institute full day kindergarten programs and spend it on that. Overcrowded classrooms already? No matter. Aging buildings that need renovation or expansion? Shut up about that and start all day kindergarten. The city is growing and we need new school buildings? Didn't you hear right? -- start that blasted all day kindergarten and stop asking questions of your betters. They know what you need.
The question that no-one is asking -- certainly not in the press that shamelessly pushed this levy in a series of articles and editorials that could in some cases just as well have been considered to be in-kind political contributions (perhaps actually contributing to the defeat of the levy) -- is this:
Had the governor and the Democratic-controlled state legislature offered school districts the same amount of money that they did to start all day kindergarten, but told districts that they could spend that money on whatever they considered to be their most pressing needs, what would the Billings school district have done?
Would SD 2 officials have spent that money to increase the school population through instituting all day kindergarten?
We would hope not. We would hope that money offered without strings attached would have been spent reducing the serious overcrowding situation in our public high schools in Billings -- an overcrowding situation that, according to our own hard-working superintendent, contributes to our abysmal high-school dropout rates.
We would hope that the money would have been spent on aging infrastructure, or perhaps increasing starting teacher salaries (our outdated salary matrix is overly top-heavy.)
But we would hope that with all of the problems that we have in Billings with overcrowding, aging infrastructure, low starting teacher salaries, and other critical issues -- we would hope that SD 2 wouldn't have elected to spend desperately needed one-time state spending on a new program that will need ongoing funding in perpetuam.
So that is what people in Billings saw. They know that they just passed a huge mill levy increase last year after an aggressive campaign was waged in support of it (for the record, we supported that mill levy increase.) And they have heard the governor trumpeting how much he has increased state funding for public schools since he came into power.
So why should voters approve yet another levy increase? Especially when they just saw the school district start a massive new program of all day kindergarten? And when they saw money from the last levy spent on opening facilities to deal with the effective doubling of the kindergarten student population?
Ordinary voters, if their household budgets are tight and they have bills that need to be paid, don't take on additional financial obligations -- even if the credit card company company says that there is no interest for the first 6 months, or if the furniture store says you don't have to make a payment at all for 3 months.
School boards, school administrators, and the education establishment in Montana should have led the fight in Helena in the last legislative session to let individual schools districts decide how they wanted to spend the increased money that was going to come from the state. Had they done that, rather than reflexively support (or remain silent about) all day kindergarten, they would be in a much better position to explain to us why they need yet more money from us.