Great Falls Tribune
It was standing room only as community members gathered to to attend a rally in support of school funding for the upcoming school levy election at a Spring Hill Suites conference room on Wednesday afternoon.
Administrators, school board members, students and parents took turns to share testimony about why they believe Great Falls Public Schools deserves the community's support in the levy election that is slated for May 5.
"About five hours from now and 63 days we will be announcing the celebration of the new era of Great Falls Public Schools," said GFPS School Board Chairman Jan Cahill to kick off the event.
Over the last decade, the school district has experienced nearly $10 million in budget cuts which has resulted in the loss of over 100 educators. According to the speakers, the impact of those losses can be felt in district classrooms and beyond.
"There is an absolute link to the business climate in our community, a strong business climate in our community, and a strong school system in our community," said Brion Torgerson, a local parent and business owner. "Strong schools equals strong business and you cannot reverse that order."
Voters will be tasked to make the final decision on the $1.3 million elementary levy, which is estimated to have a $12.40 tax impact annually on a $100,000 home.
Funding for public schools is a complex equation, but it boils down to 80 percent of the district's funds are supported by the state, while the remaining 20 percent falls on local participation. Right now, local participation is supporting 17.3 percent of the elementary district's funding, the $1.3 million levy amount would bring fund the maximum budget allowed for the district.
"What I'm here to say to you today is they deserve not 80 percent, not 70 percent, not 90 percent. They deserve 100 percent of our support," said GFPS Superintendent Tom Moore. "So this levy is about getting to that elementary levy cap and supporting our students and our teachers in this school district to 100 percent, and when we've gotten there, then we can say we've done our part.So let's get it done."
In 2016, voters handily approved the high school and elementary district bonds totaling nearly $100 million for facility improvements. The difference between a bond and a levy is that money for a bond is allocated for school buildings such as new facilities or modernizing older ones. On the other hand, levy funds support programs, teachers and other operational parts of a school.
Or more simply put, bonds are for buildings, levies are for learning.
Shane Etzwiler, president of the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, told community members at the rally that the chamber voted in full support of the operational levy last week. "Strong schools go right hand in hand with strong businesses in our community," said Etzwiler. The levy support event was hosted by Kids' Education Yes!, a community led, non-partisan political action group that has been in Great Falls since the mid 1990s. The group is running a campaign in support of the levy by educating community members about how the levy may begin to alleviate the challenges the district is facing after a decade of budget shortfalls.
"I've spent a lot of time with many of you in this room talking about the cuts, and the heartache and the loss and what are we going to do," said Jamie Marshall, the chair of KEY! "Today, I am really excited to stand in front of this phenomenal group and say we have the next 63 days to make this look different."
More: GFPS school board unanimously agrees to send levy to voters in May