Readers Speak: A trustee’s perspective
By Marc Glines, Jim McNally, Gary Croy, Mike McKitrick and Brett Owens (former trustee)
In light of all that has happened in the past few years, we would like to make a concerted effort to give some background as to how we have come to where we are today. We as trustees have various reasons for serving on the board. Some of these are: giving something back to the community, ensuring we have great teachers and facilities to promote a proper learning environment, and making sure we are taking care of our most precious resource, our kids. Whatever the reasons, trustees volunteer to keep our school going. For those of you who don’t know, the decisions for an issue are typically made after some pertinent background is provided by appropriate sources; Office of Public Instruction (OPI), Montana School Board Association (MTSBA), superintendent, principals, etc.
Some of the most important responsibilities of the trustees are: making sure our kid’s education is being taken care of to the best of our ability, creating policy, ensuring there is enough funding to keep a great staff employed, as well as having safe, functional facilities and equipment. Another job of the Trustees is to be the liaison between the taxpayers and the district. In this aspect we felt we were including the public in all phases of the proposed construction project; beginning with a public survey, followed by multiple design meetings where funding was discussed, and finally, construction. These meetings were publicly noticed as well as giving presentations to various community organizations.
Over the past 15 years or so, the board has been worried about the state of our facilities. Mainly the concerns were as follows; our grade school administration/offices were located in the center of the building, rather than the main entrance, creating serious security concerns. With all of the earthquakes in the area, we were concerned about the stability of our grade school. It was built in the 1950s and our junior high school was built in the 70s. Our lunchroom was only large enough to accommodate a small portion of our students at any time.
A community forum assisted the board in identifying and prioritizing the school and community needs and/ or deficiencies. A decision of the board was to address these potential problem areas. The first order of business was to decide if we could remodel the existing facilities.
Two independent engineering firms were brought in to evaluate the buildings to see if remodeling would be possible. Both firms came back to the board with the same conclusion; the integrity of the building was poor. It would not be cost effective to address the items that the board and community prioritized, and bring the building up to current code standards by remodeling. This included seismic requirements and electrical improvements as well as other code requirements. Both firms commented that when it was all said and done we would still have a 60-plus-year-old building with many of its existing deficiencies remaining. There were many discussions about this and it was decided that taxpayer money should not be wasted on a building that would not serve the needs of the community for a substantial period of time.
After hearing from the two engineering firms, it was decided that we should have an architect assist in creating a design for the potential “new school.” Many firms were interviewed in publicly noticed meetings and JGA was selected. It was important to the board to have public input; thus, we had many planning and workshop meetings with the community. Upon completing the design that seemed to work the best, we determined that a “contractor at risk” process would fit our needs best. This means the contractor would be “at risk” for any cost overruns associated with the entire project, excluding change orders. We contacted a number of contractors to see what such a facility would cost. After interviewing five contractors in publicly noticed meetings, Langlas Associates was hired to give us a price on the construction cost. The cost was to be approximately $9 million.
The funding was to come from a variety of sources. The building reserve levies had been passed by the community many times and had been accumulating for years. The protested taxes from the talc mine were released, leaving the district with a capital gain. It was the hope of the administration and the board to build the new school without having to pass a bond. Not to bypass the voters but to minimize the tax burden. Properties were being developed throughout the district and taxable valuations were increasing, our district mil values were growing. At that time about 70 percent of every dollar the district received was coming from these developments and changing state tax valuations.
Mr. Walsh came to the Board with an idea that would allow us to build the school without increasing the number of mils we were asking from the taxpayers. We were not attempting to bypass the voters; we were trying to build the new school without increasing taxes. Based on advice provided, we would build the new school with a 49 percent allocation from the adult education fund and 15 percent allocation from the transportation fund. Professional advice was sought by the board from the Montana Office of Public Instruction, our auditor and our attorney concerning this method of funding. As the funds were being budgeted and accrued, the county commissioners approved each budget, as did OPI.
Upon approval from these professionals we voted to move forward with the finalization of the bids, thus knowing our maximum cost of construction. All of these decisions were being made in publicly noticed meetings. We conducted 20 plus community meetings for the sole purpose of educating the public on the construction project. These meetings produced only positive comments in regard to moving forward with the project. There was not a single negative comment during this time.
This was also about the time the recession was having an effect on the Madison Valley. We questioned if this was the right time to move forward with a project of this magnitude, not knowing how the valley would be affected by the recession. We put the project on hold for one year to make sure it was the right thing to do. After delaying the project, we decided to move forward again. One of the main objectives was to feasibly employ as many local contractors as possible, since they were feeling the effects of the recession. We met a few times with the contractors in the area who voiced concerns about becoming bonded or being large enough to complete the work. This was the only possibly negative concern that was voiced about the project. It was never questioned if the project should move forward.
We have always had the school districts best interest in mind. We did not try to bypass the voters. A school construction bond would have increased the cost of the project by over $2 million in interest plus the bonding fees involved. Taxpayers would be paying for the school for the next 20 years, with increased taxes. Now the taxes are going down.
These decisions were made with the best of intentions, and with information provided to us by those with knowledge, expertise and authority, upon whom it was reasonable for us to rely.
• The board proceeded with the best professional information available from those who had the authority and expertise to provide such information.
• The public engaged with the Board to provide their assistance and opinions with the project. Those opinions were all positive and all of the priorities were addressed.
• The District’s budget was viewed by the County Treasurer and approved by the County Commissioners and the Office of Public Instruction each year without any concerns.
• The school was built at the most opportune time due to the competitive bidding environment created by the recession.
• The school was built with some local contractors and suppliers that earned over $800,000.00. This does not include the other benefits to the local economy such as rent, gas, food, etc.
• The school was built without any increase in taxes.
• Over the past two years the budget has decreased from approximately 92 mills to 50 mills and the building is now complete.
• The school was built without any interest expense to the taxpayers
• The children, teachers and staff have a new, structurally sound, environmentally safe building to continue their education.
(The company that demolished the old building was amazed at how easily the old building came down).
Moving forward, we would like as much positive feedback from the community as possible to resolve any present or future issues.