The Flathead Valley’s Leading Independent Journal of Observation, Analysis, & Opinion. © James R. Conner.


11 September 2012

Voters should approve Kalispell’s $3.4 millon elementary bond

Updated (kitchen). I recommend voting for School District 5’s $3.4 million bond to build eight new elementary school classrooms, and a new central catering kitchen. It’s a responsible proposal for providing badly needed classroom space and modernizing the catering system.

The classrooms

If the bond passes — and that’s not a sure thing — Edgerton will get four new classrooms, and Peterson will get four new classrooms plus a meeting-and-eating room, and what amounts to a kitchenette. School District 5’s community page has detailed information and architectural sketches. SD-5 superintendent Marge Schottle provided additional information and arguments in an oped in the 26 August 2012 Daily InterLake.

According to school officials, SD-5’s elementary classrooms are “overcrowded.” Montana’s accreditation standards call for class sizes of no more than 20 students. According to information presented at a September, 2011, board meeting, the district’s kindergarten classes average 24.4 students. First and second grade classes average 22.2 and 22.4 respectively. If the class sizes could be held at 10 percent over accreditation standards, the situation probably could be tolerated, but if enrollment continues to grow, and there’s every indication that it will, class sizes will increase to the point where students will have a harder time learning. Therefore, the time to build more classrooms is now.

Apparently, the increased enrollment exceeded the projected growth in enrollment by a substantial amount and caught school officials by surprise. Why the projections were so far off should be investigated — better projections improve long range planning — but the off-the-mark projections should not be an issue in this campaign. My conjecture at this point, incidentally, is that the projections assumed growth was a function of time (growth, positive or negative, is actually a function of population change; a change in time becomes a proxy for a change in population), and that economic upheavals were not part of the model. Young couples with children may have moved back to the valley, and parents who wanted to send their children to private school might not have been able to afford the tuition.

The kitchen

The current catering kitchen, located in below street level spaces on the west side of Flathead High School, was built in 1935. Bond supporters are making a big deal of that, but it’s the design of the kitchen, not its age, that’s the problem. In a post last month, I wrote that it reminded me of the galley on a tramp steamer that had seen better days. It could certainly be modernized, but the money would be better spent on a new kitchen designed for catering.

Kitchen update. Mike Kofford, the school district’s outreach coordinator, advised me today that he had unearthed more of the kitchen’s history. The structure housing the kitchen was constructed in 1935, but the kitchen, and evidently some of the equipment, dates from the late ‘forties and early ‘fifties. No surprise there. The older a facility, the richer its history. But the kitchen’s inefficient design, not its age, is the critical factor.

New classrooms are an urgent need. A new kitchen is a need, but not nearly as urgent a need, in my opinion, as the classrooms. I suspect the new kitchen was added to the bond proposal because the trustees suspected it would not pass if submitted to the voters separately. I think that’s right, but adding the kitchen to the classrooms increases the cost to the taxpayers, and decreases the probability that the bond will pass.

The election

Running a school bond election just six weeks before the 6 November general election earns from me a failing grade in civics. Using a mail ballot will increase the turnout, but the turnout will be lower than the turnout in the general election. And the trustees and administrators know it.

So why a mail ballot in early September? Five reasons, I think:

First, the excitement of the beginning of the school year, and the sunny days of the end of summer, will put parents, teachers, and staff in a good mood. Later in the year, people will be grumpier and less likely to approve raising their taxes.

Second, parents and teachers, groups likely to vote for the bond, will comprise a larger share of the voters than in November. There’s nothing new about this tactic, but it amounts to shopping for favorable voters and thus is an insult to democracy.

Third, and I’ve confirmed this, there are fears that the bond issue will be overshadowed by the presidential election, ballot issues, and other offices on the general election ballot.

Fourth, approving the bond in September improves the probability that the new construction can be completed before the start of the 2013–2014 school year.

Fifth, property tax notices are mailed to property owners in late October. Property tax notices are never good news. I strongly suspect that SD-5 wanted the vote held well before voters looked at their tax bills and began turning purple with indignation and outrage.