We’ve long encouraged Helenans to vote in favor of the mill levy increases for the Helena Public Schools, and we’re doing it again this year.
On May 3, voters will decide whether or not to increase local taxes for Helena’s schools by $417,000 — $247,000 for the elementary schools and $170,000 for the high schools.
Those aren’t huge numbers, and broken down, they’re even smaller: If approved, the hike would amount to an extra $7.04 a year per $100,000 of taxable property value. That, of course, is on top of what you’re already assessed in taxes to fund public schools.
Nobody likes higher taxes, but approving this very modest hike should be, if we may use an inappropriate metaphor, a no-brainer.
Helena has traditionally funded its schools at the highest level allowed by the state, and it shows. As school board chairman Michael O’Neil noted this week in a meeting with the Independent Record editorial board, “Helena (School District) is known now for valuing its employees and for doing our best to attract and retain good employees.” Hiring good teachers and keeping them here isn’t cheap, but it’s the right thing to do for our children and for the future of our community, and that reputation for valuing talented instructors brings benefits beyond the tax rolls and beyond the district’s geographic boundaries. More than 90 percent of the school district’s $52 million budget goes to personnel, so a positive vote on the levy is essentially a vote to keep the best teachers we can find working in our classrooms.
The school district’s budget can’t be finalized until the Legislature works out a school funding plan for the next two years — which may not take place until a special session after next month’s school election. Local officials are basing their levy request on a 1.9 percent “increase” in school funding from the state. Increase in this case is somewhat deceiving, though, since in reality all the Legislature would be doing in that case would be backfilling for federal stimulus dollars that were used two years ago that aren’t available now in order to keep funding levels stable.
Voter turnout for school elections is typically well below what’s seen in elections for local, state or federal offices. It’s too bad that’s the case, because few votes can make such a direct impact on the long-term future of the community as who will lead our school district and how much money we’re willing to spend on education. With three seats on the board of trustees up for grabs this year as well, perhaps more people will take the time to express how they want the schools to operate.
This election is a chance for Helenans to show lawmakers how to step up and fund schools to the maximum extent allowed. Voters in the Helena School District have a lengthy track record of approving every educational mill levy increase that’s been requested. That admirable trend should continue on May 3.