In a 58-to-42 percent vote, Missoula County residents gave an emphatic thumbs up to a $20 million school bond issue that will fund major repairs, renovations and expansions at Big Sky, Hellgate, Sentinel and Seeley-Swan high schools.
In addition to paying for building refurbishment, repairs and expansions, the bond also allocates to Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) about $1.7 million to pay for the so-called Safer Schools Projects, which include a cornucopia of safety, access and security measures such as exterior door access card systems in all four high schools, improved security and emergency lighting, security gates, new phone lines and intercoms, reconfigured hallways and offices for better visual access, and so on.
Missoula County Public Schools has been debt-free since 1998, when the 20-year bond that paid for construction of Big Sky and Hellgate’s addition was finally paid off.
Nevertheless, some critics of the measure were wary of allocating more tax dollars to the school district, arguing that the MCPS board hasn’t always demonstrated the most solid fiscal responsibility with the money already in its coffers.
For example, school board watchdog Janet Scott wants to know why the district underspent its budget line item for teacher salaries for the past three years to the tune of about $300,000 annually—especially at a time when the board was lamenting the difficulties in reducing class sizes and received $390,000 in federal funds this year to hire up to 15 new teachers. Instead, claims Scott, the district terminated teachers already employed, then rehired them with the federal funds and diverted those funds for other projects.
Moreover, Scott argues that the dip in elementary school enrollment that hit Missoula schools in 1992 will soon be affecting Missoula’s high schools. She says that by the time the current improvements funded by this bond issue are completed, that enrollment dip will have reached the high schools and voters will have spent millions of dollars on unnecessary expansion efforts. Meanwhile, she says, the district has all but ignored the more severe problem of overcrowding in the elementary schools since Emma Dickinson and Roosevelt closed last year.
“I think it’s disturbing that none of these proposed expenditures, except the ones for surveillance cameras and tennis courts, out of all those millions of dollars on that bond, were ever discussed by the board,” says Scott. “They neverwent through it item by item and assessed the relative values of the various items.”
Ballots for the bond issue, which were mailed to more than 46,000 Missoula County residents, required at least a 40 percent voter response to win by a simple majority. About 57 percent of the ballots were returned. Had the measure received between 30 and 40 percent turnout, it would have required at least a 60 percent supermajority.