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Failed levies leave Hamilton schools scrambling to make ends meet

The administrators and trustees who run the five-school, 1,600-student Hamilton School District have squeezed every nickel twice so as not to have to ask voters for more money. But after three years of belt-tightening, and after nine years of a stagnant classroom supply budget, the school board finally went to the voters and asked for operating money. On May 8, when school elections were held statewide, Hamilton voters said no to twin requests: one for $253,314 for operating expenses and another for $273,340 for building maintenance.

This week, the cuts begin to take effect. And they won’t be the kind that only teachers and students notice—the trimming back of art supplies, say, or the reduction of basketballs for the team. This time, the community will feel the cuts, says district superintendent Duane Lyons.

Elementary classrooms will be larger; fourth and fifth grade class sizes will go from 23 students to 28. Individual student attention might have to give way to more discipline. Some sports will be eliminated, in a tit-for-tat, Title IX fashion in which for each boys’ sport that goes, a girls’ sport will follow. That means no more wrestling, girls’ golf, weight training or pep band.

Field trips will be reduced or eliminated. Some retiring teachers will not be replaced. One janitor and six classroom aides will be looking for new jobs.

And that’s just a partial list. The school board is scheduled to vote on the recommended cuts on May 23, and if they can’t come to an agreement, says Lyons, they’ll continue to meet every night until they do.

The fact that the Hamilton School District had to ask the voters for money to operate its programs came as a surprise. The district is lean, with some of the nation’s lowest-paid teachers to prove it. Montana ranks 47th in teacher pay, and Hamilton is one of the poorest-paying districts in the state. Teacher salaries start at $19,900, and the highest salary a teacher can hope to make at Hamilton is $34,000—and that’s with a master’s degree and 25 years of experience.

Lyons says the district hasn’t asked the voters for a levy since at least 1968, which is as far back as budget records go. So the voters’ rejection came as a bit of a surprise. “I guess I was a little bit surprised,” he says, adding, “I realize it was a little bit of false hope. But when people decide they don’t want to do something, any excuse will do.”

The excuses for voting down the levy, he says, are as individual as the voters themselves, though one common theme emerged in conversations he has had: The new, $14.7 million high school which opened its doors last fall. Voters said, ‘We’re paying for the high school; don’t ask for more.’

The other reason voters said no, Lyons notes, is a general misunderstanding over the fate of the old high school, now a middle school. Over the past seven or eight years, Hamilton voters have gone to the polls to vote on bonds to pay for various projects. Some of the bonds were lumped together in one election, like three bonds to pay for building improvements at the old high school. Two passed and the safety upgrades were made, but few voters remember that, Lyons says. Instead, they believe, mistakenly, that middle school students were moved into an old, unsafe building. “You guys just lied to us,” is another common complaint that helped doom the levy, he says.

So how do the school board and administration address the critics and continue to operate a public school system at the same time? “The short answer is, you listen to ideas,” Lyons says.

The trustees will be listening this week, but Lyons, one step ahead, is already working on a future round of budget cuts because the financial woes facing the school are greater than a single levy rejection.

Last December, for instance, the district’s long-term natural gas contract ran out. The gas bill in the middle school alone jumped from $3,000 in December to $12,000 in January. And that doesn’t take into account the expected jump in electricity prices when the deregulation-spawned rate freeze ends in July 2002.

Health insurance for school employees will go up 26 to 31 percent, because last year those employees had enough babies, heart attacks and cancer to raise everyone’s premiums.

Contract negotiations for two groups of employees—teachers and non-teaching staff—should be completed by school’s end this year, and raises will likely be the result.

But the good news is embodied in two science students who last February traveled to San Francisco to present their papers on DNA research to a conference on the mapping of the human genome. There were 800 reporters from around the world in attendance.

Lyons wants to continue offering his students the kind of education that focuses on original DNA research and research on whirling disease, but for next year he’ll struggle just to meet minimum accreditation standards.

“Ultimately, I’ve got a lot of respect for the people in Hamilton,” he says. “I believe they support education, though the levy didn’t show that. I believe they didn’t understand how it would affect their children or their neighbor’s children.”

The next levy election—and there will be a next one—will come at the end of a more sophisticated marketing campaign, starting now.

“Today is the first day of next year’s levy campaign,” Lyons says. #

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