This is part three in a three part series on the Ennis and Big Sky School Districts.
By Taylor Anderson, Big Sky Weekly Assistant Editor
MADISON AND GALLATIN COUNTIES – It’s an issue that isn’t likely to evaporate any time in the near future.
Big Sky claims evidence in favor of taking action to transfer the Big Sky residents living in Madison County from the Ennis and Big Sky school district. It’s piled high over the nearly 148 years that border has been in place.
No records exist that document when the school district borders were created—though Ennis and Big Sky most likely followed county lines set in 1864—but school districts crossing county lines isn’t uncommon in Montana.
What makes this geographical border of interest is twofold: two wealthy Madison County districts located in Big Sky are served mostly by Gallatin County, separated by a rugged mountain range and private road from the county where they pay taxes, and Ennis’s new $10 million school that was built amidst confusion and perhaps bad advice and was found in December 2011 to have been built with illegally raised, non-levied school district funds.
Districts 28 and 29 in Big Sky have accounted for about 75 percent of the Ennis School District budget in the last seven years. Those residents have accounted for about 50 percent of that entire county’s total collected taxes over the last five years.
Commissioner Jim Hart maintains residents receive ample services in exchange for taxes—including road plowing, police, bus and health services. Big Sky residents say what they really want is access to the school they pay for.
Erik Lovold and other parents living at Big Sky Resort drive their students to Lone Peak High or Ophir School in the mornings. Lovold says that although Ennis gives him money in restitution, he’d like more in return for his taxes.
“There hasn’t been any organization yet. A lot of us don’t really know what to do to try and help rectify the organization,” Lovold said. “If I had it my way I’d section off a new county for [Big Sky].
“That’s just me saying hey I want to see things change, and I don’t know how to go about it.”
Even if all of Big Sky’s residents were in Gallatin County, they would pay more in taxes. Gallatin County residents pay a .68 percent property tax versus the .52 percent in Madison County.
The Montana Constitution allows property owners to petition county school superintendents to change district lines, but the code is full of red tape and stipulations that would likely force Madison County Superintendent Judi Osborn to reject a petition.
The law states that “in cases where the cumulative effect of transfers is greater than 25 percent of the district’s taxable value,” the superintendent would consider the district’s passage of voted levies over the previous eight years, and the likelihood of an increase in taxes if the transfer were granted.
Removing 75 percent from the Ennis School District’s nearly $17 million budget in 2012 would either take a devastating toll on the courses offered to students or would force a drastic increase taxes on Ennis residents. Realistically, that potential impact would force Osborn to reject a petition.
The law says the superintendent would host a hearing at which petitioners would present findings regarding impact a transfer would have on class size, student transportation, the ability of the receiving district to provide educational services, cost and travel time of students.
These are some of the few sections of law that Osborn would potentially see as creating a positive impact on both sides. Osborn didn’t return requests by the Big Sky Weekly for comment on the article.
Significant cooperation and agreement between the counties would be necessary to grant any proposed change. The trustees and property owners from both districts would have to agree that change is in mutual interest.
“I think potentially the bigger issue is there has to be interest by both sides by the property owners [and] parents of students in the territory that’s in question,” said Dennis Parman, Montana Office of Public Instruction Deputy Superintendent.
“I think in this case there may be some obstacles that would make it very difficult,” Parman said. “If there’s no upside for Ennis to transfer, they’re not obligated to.”
Ennis School Trustee Lisa Frye has been an outspoken critic of her fellow board members. She said she would understand any attempt by Big Sky to changing districts. “I wouldn’t blame Big Sky people for looking at that,” she said.
Residents in Big Sky, the town of about 2,300 full time residents with high numbers of vacation homes, won’t likely take action any time soon. Gathering evidence to put forth a strong argument would take time and resources, and Big Sky school officials don’t appear ready yet to launch efforts.
At a public forum in February, a resident asked whether the town could go about changing the county line, to which Big Sky School District Superintendent Jerry House responded that he had started a conversation with the Ennis school system.
Asked whether anything was in the works from school officials late in March, House had no comment.
Growing interest in the school system in Ennis, a southwest Montana town with fewer than 1,000 residents, comes after the K-12 school spent nearly $10 million on a new, much needed school building.
The school’s superintendent, Doug Walsh, is also in hot water with the Teachers’ Retirement System after the school paid him a salary while he collected retirement benefits. The school district and Walsh now owe the TRS $760,000. That issue is in early stages of court.
That district is moving toward remediating its actions. Walsh plans to resign at the end of June. Two, three-year spots on the school board expire this year; four Ennis residents are running for those positions.
The board has volleyed with Madison County Commissioners on whether a comprehensive audit is the best way to start repairing the resulting mistrust from the community. The commissioners on April 3 decided they would move forward in pursuit of an audit that would bring light to any spending discrepancies in the past decade.
The decision came after several meeting in which several trustees argued they didn’t think taxpayers should pay for an expensive audit.
Ennis resident Kelly Robinson is a staunch proponent of the audit. She and her husband Dave Kelley, who filed suit against Walsh and several board members in 2010, have spoken out at board meetings that the board needs more transparency.
“Our town can’t go through this again,” Robinson said. “We need an audit. We need a comprehensive audit.”