This is part 1 in a three part series covering the Ennis and Ophir school districts.
By Taylor Anderson, Explorebigsky.com Assistant Editor
Madison County, Big Sky—
The borders were established long
before Chet Huntley had his grand vision
of a destination ski resort on Lone
Before Route 64 was created and would
deliver residents and tourists to what is
now the site of two ski resorts, Madison
and Gallatin County lines were created.
Along those same lines, between
the Big Sky Mountain Village and the
Big Sky Meadow Village, the Ennis and
Ophir school districts meet.
With hundreds of people living at the
resorts in Madison County, and nearly
400 more at the Yellowstone Club, Big
Sky residents are at a crossroads.
The resort developments are in
Madison County, and Jack Creek Road,
which runs between Big Sky and Ennis,
is private. Without access to that road,
it’s a 90-mile trip north from Big Sky to
Bozeman and then southwest to Ennis,
which sits just miles west of Big Sky as
the crow flies.
The issue has been around as long as the
resort: Big Sky taxpayers are funding
services they feel they can’t readily use
in the Madison Valley, one of which is
But Madison County commissioners
say the town benefits from services that
go unseen, and believe there is nothing
wrong with Big Sky residents’ taxes
heading to the valleys west of Lone
Most recently, attention has been
focused on the schools.
After a recent Attorney General ruling
that a new $9 million Ennis grade
school was funded inappropriately, a
decades-old debate in a town that spans
two counties has been stoked, and some
Big Sky residents want change.
The fundamental question behind
the issue lies in one short sentence, as
said by Ophir School Board member
Barbara Rowley: “Why are we in the
Ennis School District?”
Ophir School District is 99 years
old. Ennis School District is 96 years
old. Officials followed Madison and
Gallatin County lines to establish the
east-west border for the schools.
The issue became prevalent during
development in the Big Sky section of
Madison County that started in the
1970s and continues today. The recent
accusations against Ennis Superintendent
Doug Walsh have agitated those
Walsh, who announced his resignation
at a Feb. 8 school board meeting, has
been accused of fraud, misuse of public
funds and illegally collecting benefits.
Although once approved by the
Montana School Boards Association,
Attorney General Steve Bullock
decided early this year that funds raised
by levies for adult education shouldn’t
have been used to build the elementary
and middle school in Ennis.
The school is said to have put $4 million
in property taxes levied for adult
education and transportation toward
the new building, which Bullock later
said was illegal in a contested decision.
Attorney Debra Silk has said that OPI
Chief Dennis Parman said in 2010 the
money shift was legal if the building
was used for adult education.
The high value real estate in Big Sky
and the Yellowstone Club contributed
more than $13 million in taxes in 2011,
50 percent of all property taxes collected
that year in that county. Over
the past five years, Big Sky districts of
Madison County have contributed a
shade more than half of the entirety
of Madison County’s property tax
The two, in districts 28 and 29 of
Madison County, are the highest taxed
districts in that county.
Big Sky and Yellowstone Club
residents in Madison County in 2011
contributed $2,382,223.05 to the Ennis
This year, 331 students attend Ennis
K-12. That school’s budget last year was
$16,754,554.51, according to budget
information listed on the Montana Office
of Public Instruction website.
Ophir School District enrolled 212
students this year and had an operating
budget last year of $2,309,682.56.
At a meeting last month on proposed
changes to the Lone Peak High School
curriculum, Big Sky parent and
Madison County resident Erik Lovold
brought up an alternative to school
changes: school district lines.
Lovold said he’s tired of paying for a
school his 14-year-old daughter can’t
feasibly attend, to which the public and
members of the school board (including
Superintendent Jerry House) murmured
“The [Ennis] school system is the thing
that I think our kids are missing out on
the most,” Lovold said.
Lovold says he and other Big Sky
parents in Madison County get money
annually from Ennis as reimbursement
for the hour and a half commute
from the Mountain Village to Lone
Peak High School and back home each
day. What would be more helpful, he
says, is a school bus that would pick up
Madison County students who attend
the Ophir schools.
Ophir reimburses parents who live
outside the bus route.
Ten of the 212 students in Ophir
School District this year live across the
county line, according to LPHS staff.
Ennis schools reimburse Ophir for
tuition at a rate of $991 per year for
elementary students, and $1,268.60
for high school students.
Madison County commissioner Jim
Hart said that about a decade ago
there was a discussion in the Montana
Legislature about rearranging school
districts. He said both school boards
and superintendents must agree on a
rearrangement before action is taken.
But that’s beside the point, because
Hart said he doesn’t see a problem with
the current setup.
Asked whether the state should rearrange
the districts, Hart said “I’ll just
give that short answer, no.”
“I think they’re there as a result of
where the county boundaries are. That
creates some heartache I’m sure with
Big Sky,” he said.
Hart spent 27 of his 30 years as a
teacher in Ennis, and said that some
members of the Ennis school board are
former students of his.
Hart pointed out that his county has
spent money on services that directly
apply to the Big Sky area. Madison
County has spent $90,000 in the last
three years on the Skyline bus service,
he says, which Gallatin County hasn’t.
Madison County also pays $244,996
annually for police in Big Sky, a cost that
is split by the two counties along with
additional funding from Big Sky Resort
tax funding. Resort tax funded about
$122,500 during 2012 appropriations.
“I’m happy they’ve got a great school
over there. I’m just not happy that
we’re not able to take advantage of any
of those services,” Lovold said. “If our
kids were able to take the back road
down Moonlight and go to school in
Ennis, okay, that makes sense, but
that’s not even an option.”
“The wrongs have to be righted,” Lovold
said. “We need to see that there’s
a better split for that, and that our
students and our school is benefitting
from the area that we’re in.”