The Ennis School District’s Adult Education winter term kicks off next week and though it’s offering a diverse slate of classes, it comes in the midst of persistent questions about funding for the program.
In Ennis, adult education funding is intimately tied to funding for the new school building project, which is slated for completion this month. It’s a connection that some people have no concern with, while others – including Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock – find improper.
In round numbers, the new school building project cost taxpayers about $9 million. Of that money about 49 percent or about $4.41 million was paid out of the district’s adult education fund, said Ennis superintendent Doug Walsh.
Specific numbers aren’t available yet because the school isn’t quite finished and some of the extraneous work such as landscaping, switching the entire school campus to propane heat and asbestos removal could wind up adding to the final tally for the project, Walsh said.
The new buildings are slated to be used about 49 percent for adult education and community purposes, he said. It’s not clear yet if this will mean 49 percent of the time the school buildings are open, or if 49 percent of the space in the new buildings will be used for adult education.
And right now Walsh admits the program isn’t built up to the point the district can meet this 49 percent threshold as either a function of time or of space.
“We feel there’s an obligation that we want to fill it if we can and we’re going to do everything we possibly can to fill it up to the 49 percent,” he said.
This semester the Ennis Adult Education Program is offering a wide range of classes from photography, to Spanish to horse packing. It has a new website: www.ennis-ece.org. Students are charged $20 per class. Classes start Jan. 16.
The program also has a fulltime coordinator, Doranne Pitz, who took over the program director job in August.
One of the big pushes this coming year will be developing a Graduation Equivalent Degree through the Adult Education Program, Walsh said.
The need for a GED program is evident through comments from the community, he said. Now it’s just a matter of figuring out how to implement it.
The program will allow people who failed to earn a high school diploma to work with teachers to earn its equivalent. It’s an important aspect of what the district wants to offer through adult education, Walsh said.
This year’s budget for the Ennis School District included $2.9 million for adult education, including $248,000 of taxes levied on district property owners for this year.
From a statewide standpoint, the Ennis School District’s adult education budget is about three times the size of the next highest school district, which is Baker’s K-12 district. Last year, Baker had about $850,000 in adult education, according to budget numbers from the Montana Office of Public Instruction.
The most current and easily digestible figures for adult education allocations around the state come from last year’s budgets and were synthesized by OPI.
In southwest Montana, school districts spend far less on adult education than Ennis. Last year, Twin Bridges allocated about $51,000 to their program; Sheridan spent about $7,000 on theirs. Harrison didn’t allocate any money in their budget for an adult education program. Bozeman allocated about $152,000 for adult education and Butte allocated about $100,000 for theirs. In last year’s budget, Ennis had more than $2.6 million allocated for the program.
These numbers are stark in their contrast, but don’t paint a clear picture, Walsh said.
Ennis School District had money allocated to adult education in a large part to build the new school, he said.
And this is where some of the controversy arises. Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock has issued a draft opinion saying it’s not legal to pay for a school building out of adult education or transportation funds in part because they are supported by non-voted levies.
As outlined in last week’s article in The Madisonian, the Montana School Board Association and Ennis School Board take exception to Bullocks opinion. The school board association is saying, in part, that adult education funds have historically been used for some capital expenditures by several school districts and that OPI even gave a cautious approval to the Ennis School District’s use of adult education funds for their new school project when asked by the Madison County Attorney’s office.
Bullock is receiving limited comment on his draft opinion through this week. He has set no timeline as to when a final decision will be issued.
The Ennis School District began collecting money in the adult education and transportation funds at least as far back as 2004. At that point in time the district faced a unique situation. According to interviews with Walsh and school board chairman Marc Glines back in August 2010, the school board realized they were going to need a new school building about the same time the property boom hit southwest Montana. This boom had a major impact on property values within the Ennis School District due to the fact that about half of the Big Sky area is in the district. From 2004 to 2010 the taxable value of property within the Ennis School District climbed from about $24.5 million to more than $60 million.
Suddenly the school district was in a position where they could keep tax levels steady and collect substantially more money. And that’s exactly what they did.
In 2004, the school district taxed its residents for a total of $2.27 million with 92.21 mills. By 2008, the same 92.2 mills brought in about $4.5 million in tax revenue to the district. In the same time, the size of the budget of the school district went from about $5.9 million to about $12.9 million.
State law closely governs how school districts can tax their residents and out of the 10 funds within the school district’s budget, only the transportation and adult education funds are supported by permissive levies – or non-voted levies.
Essentially, what this means is that if the school district had wanted to put the money they were collecting from the rapidly increasing property values into a building fund, it would have had to go to the voters for permission. But the money could be put into adult education and transportation without asking voters, which is essentially what happened.
Between 2004 and 2008, the transportation and adult education funds for the Ennis School District grew from about $861,00 and $236,000 respectfully to about $1.45 million and $2.6 million respectfully.
But at the time the district was putting money away in the adult education and transportation funds, they were also planning for a new school, Walsh said.
According to him, this fact cannot be overlooked. Without understanding that the school district was faced with a major construction project, all these numbers look misleading.
In 2007, when the school board began holding public meetings about the new school what they heard from the community was it wanted a new school to also accommodate community needs as well, Walsh said.
The initial architectural estimates for the cost of a new K-8 school were between $12 million and $13 million, he said. At that point it looked like the district was going to have just enough money squirreled away to pay for the project.
But when it was bid out in the summer of 2010, the final cost was guaranteed at about $9 million. With spending 49 percent of that out of adult education, that left about $2.6 million in the fund, Walsh said. Add to that the $248,000 levied against taxpayers this year and you get to the $2.9 million.
As an important side note, for the last two years, the Ennis School District has steadily decreased the tax assessments in the district from a high of $4.9 million in 2009, to about $3.1 million this year. This decrease will continue now the new school is nearing completion, he said.
According to Walsh, none of the remaining adult education money will be spent on finishing the construction project. It will all go toward supporting the adult education program and paying overhead costs going forward.
“We want to be able to run an adult ed program here for years and years and years that will be quality,” he said. “That was a lot of the reason we built the facility.”
Among the vocal opponents to the way the school district has used the adult education fund to collect tax money for the new school, is new school board member Lisa Frye.
Frye was elected last May and said during her campaign that voters in the school district should have been allowed to vote on building the new school.
Her concern now is for the impact Bullock’s opinion will have on the school district. It’s still unclear whether or not the opinion will be retroactive or not, she said. It could mean that the school district may be forced to find ways to pay back the money spent on the new school out of the adult education and transportation funds.
“If his opinion holds true it’s exactly what I said all along, we built this school in an illegal fashion,” Frye said.
Her concern is the financial obligation the Ennis School District may have to support an adult education program years into the future. Not to mention the financial impact to the district of paying back the adult education and transportation funds if it is determined eventually they were used illegally.
“I foresee the Ennis School District having a real problem financially,” she said.
Last summer, Frye was the only school board member to vote against passing the budget and this was largely because she didn’t feel there was a good explanation of why the district was asking for more money in adult education and how that money was going to be spent.
This year’s expenditures out of the adult education fund will be clearer towards the end of the fiscal year in June, Walsh said. But the school pays for the extra janitorial services, administration staff and operation costs of having the expanded program at the school.
The idea now is to use the money the district has to build a substantial adult education program without having to tax property owners in the future, he said.
“We want to sustain and build and really it’s going to be the interest of the public that tells us where to go,” Walsh said. “There’s a lot of work to do and we’re just trying to get to that.”
The school board will be discussing the adult education program at their regular monthly meeting Wednesday, Jan. 11 at 5 p.m.