No soup for you 

Frenchtown battles a perfect storm in school funding

The Frenchtown School District was thriving five years ago. Enrollment had increased steadily by 3 percent annually since 1970, and a booming housing market bolstered the district's growth. Schools could no longer accommodate the number of students; broom closets became offices and offices became classrooms. Frenchtown moved from class C to class B to class A status. The district shut its doors to non-district students and launched a $20 million expansion project in 2006 that included a junior high and a new vocational facility. "Right next to the school here, there was a plat for an 80-house addition," says district superintendent Randy Cline. "We saw the growth there. We were prepared for it...The building project itself wasn't so much about preparing for growth as it was just catching up."

That growth screeched to a halt with the recession in 2008, and Cline says he's often heard the phrase "perfect storm" used to describe the problems his district has faced in the subsequent three years.

First the real estate market bottomed out. Then the state plugged stimulus dollars into budgets, which delayed funding shortfalls but left them looming. Then, in early 2010, Smurfit-Stone Container shuttered its pulp mill and took with it hundreds of jobs and tens of thousands of dollars in tax revenue.

Cline says there's no death knell for Frenchtown, but he doesn't sugarcoat the fact that his district is suffering. Frenchtown voters shot down a $175,000 schools levy request last week 1,130 to 569. It was the first time in five years that the schools had requested a levy increase. District administrators had hoped to retain five staff members with the money. Additional layoffs were imminent regardless; the district has a projected budget deficit of $649,166 for the 2011-2012 school year.

Trustees are now looking at terminating up to nine teachers and several administrators. "A lot of them are going to be first-year teachers or second-year teachers, and a lot of them might show great promise," says school board chair Dianne Burke. "But because of contractual obligations, those are going to be the first ones let go."

click to enlarge Frenchtown schools superintendent Randy Cline is trying to look on the bright side. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN

Cline says it's hard to know why the levy failed.

One reason might be fear of increased taxes in a time of economic uncertainty. Smurfit accounted for 24 percent of the taxable property in the district in 2009; this year the figure is projected at around 10 percent. "That taxable value doesn't go away," Cline says. "It just shifts to other property owners in the district." Before the election, Cline says, he got a call from a woman in the district who runs a home-based business. She told Cline that even the smallest tax increase would be detrimental for her family: "She said, 'I want you to know I really support the school. But I'm sorry, I can't vote for the levy.'"

Such concerns may explain why most voters turned down the district's request. Harlan Ockler doesn't feel that justifies it. Ockler served on the Frenchtown school board for 17 years. He owns the King Ranch Golf Course, which, he points out, means a property tax increase is a pretty big deal for him. Yet he says he would have voted for the levy if it had been three times the amount requested.

"A lot of folks probably thought, 'Gosh, we just can't stand any more of a burden,'" Ockler says. "But you don't have to be an MIT graduate to take a look at a $200,000 home and you're talking $49 a year you're going to invest in the education for a child? Something's the matter."

The district's concerns aren't limited to the failure of a levy, however. Last October, Cline appeared before the board with some troubling news: According to the Montana Office of Public Instruction, 60 students had dropped out of the Frenchtown schools since fall 2009. Cline had predicted an enrollment slump in the aftermath of the Smurfit closure, but the reality was three times higher than what he'd initially guessed.

The school board voted last month to begin accepting non-district students again this fall. Burke says they'll discuss a potential tuition charge for those students in the coming weeks.

Still, Cline's mood has improved somewhat since last week's election. One day after the levy votes were tallied, executives from the Illinois-based Green Investment Group appeared at the Smurfit plant alongside Gov. Brian Schweitzer to announce a purchase. The company says it intends to bring recycling and alternative energy business to the site; a prospective buyer earlier this year merely intended to scrap the facility.

Cline took the announcement to mean new jobs for Frenchtown residents and a revived tax base. So the picture is brighter than it was in February, he says. Yet with all the setbacks his district has experienced in three years, he can't help defaulting to a "what if" mentality.

"If Green [Investment Group] had announced last week that they were coming in and they were going to reopen the Smurfit-Stone site and put businesses in there and create jobs, what effect would that have had on our mill levy?" he asks. "It was defeated by such a wide margin, I don't know if it would have passed. But it would have been a lot closer."

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