The Lolo School bond failed last week for the second time in five months, leaving the community divided and educators desperate for a new way to fix the outdated facility in the center of town.
Supporters of the bond sought to collect $10.5 million from residents to build a new K-4 school on a 20-acre plot in east Lolo. They say the current K-8 school is unsafe and over capacity, and hoped to separate the district's 602 students on two different campuses. Opponents of the bond, led by businessman Frank Miller, disagreed with the school district's plan and prevailed by a 29-vote margin when the mail-in ballots were counted on March 12.
Miller, who owns KT's Hayloft Saloon and Deli, sent out fliers and manufactured big red signs telling Lolo residents to vote no. He's on a winning streak and he's happy about it.
"I'm glad it got defeated," he says. "It is a scam deal. There's no competitive bids."
Montana's commissioner of political practices did put a damper on Miller's victory when it ruled on March 18 that he violated state campaign laws by failing to properly provide attribution on his signs and fliers. The commissioner did not invalidate the outcome of the vote, however.
Mike Magone, the superintendent of the Lolo school district, says he is "kind of heartbroken" by the outcome of the vote. He pegs the loss to the Lolo community's aversion to taxes as well as to "misinformation" published and promoted by Miller and other opponents.
"I think one of the consistent things along the way is that there are a fair number of people in the Lolo community that, regardless of the reason, do not want their taxes increased," he says. "...There was also continued misinformation put out there that I think had an impact, and it increased from the last go around and that was definitely frustrating to us."
Karen Balfour, the co-chair of Vote Yes For Lolo Kids, says Miller's claims about competitive bidding are "simply not true." The district planned to use a bidding process known as the design-build method for the proposed school. The method is regularly employed for public works projects.
"The process was competitive and it would have allowed for more local people to put bids in," she says. "The outcome is sad all the way around. The kids deserve a building that supports the learning that goes on."
A similar school bond proposal lost by a 43-vote margin in October last year. Magone says the district has no plans to take another run at a school bond in the near future.