By Gabrielle Gasser ASSOCIATE EDITOR
BIG SKY – Four representatives from the Ennis School District Board of Trustees trekked up Jack Creek Road Monday to discuss their proposed new school bond with Big Sky voters.
After voting on Aug. 8 to bring a $45 million bond resolution intended to improve and expand current school facilities to voters in November, the Ennis board of trustees is now looking to engage with its voter base in Big Sky to open a dialogue about the new bond ahead of the election. Casey Klasna, superintendent of Ennis Schools, joined the four trustees. Several residents who live in the Big Sky portion of Madison County gathered in the Shoshone Condominium Hotel at Big Sky Resort on the evening of Sept. 12 to listen to the five discuss the bond.
Among the electorate deciding this bond are 455 registered Big Sky voters residing in Madison County, who make up almost 12% of the Ennis School District voting bloc.
Previously, the district proposed a $59 million bond, which failed in the Feb. 8 mail-in election. Following that election, trustees said that engaging with and listening to taxpayers led them to pare down the new bond by $14 million.
“We’re still at this because we have a need,” said Kyle Stone, chairman of the Ennis school board.
At the meeting, Stone explained that the 50-year-old high school building is not up to code, not ADA accessible and is no longer big enough to accommodate all the students and classes.
“We’re trying to keep up with the growth and also act on our strategic plan of keeping our class sizes from growing to a size that are just crazy,” he said.
In 2011, Stone said, Ennis schools had an enrollment of 330 students. This year, there are over 425 students enrolled in the district, almost a 100-student growth in 10 years. Ennis expects to see this trend continue, Stone said, with projections based on live birth data showing they will gain another 100 students over the next 10 years.
To update the existing high school building just to meet current growth and needs, the cost is roughly half of the proposed bond, according to trustee Paul Bills. He said the goal is to keep as much of the existing space in the district as possible based on feedback from taxpayers. Among the cuts from the failed February bond were an eight-lane track and new football field.
“We had to make some tough decisions when the bond failed,” Stone said, adding that they focused on the educational side with the newly proposed bond.
Bills said the impact of the bond on taxpayers is minimal, at $2.12 per month for every $100,000 of a home’s assessed market value. He pointed to Gallatin County, claiming that the neighboring county’s taxes are high in comparison. Bills said that taxes in Madison County are lower because of the high taxable valuation—approximately $191 million—which is spread out across a smaller county population.
“This is the cheapest place in the entire state of Montana to pay taxes,” Bills said.
Those in attendance from Big Sky raised several concerns about the tax money funneled to the Ennis school district and what they see as a lack of reciprocity of services in return. The Big Sky portion of Madison County contributes roughly 87% of the district’s property tax base, according to 2021 taxable value data from the Montana Department of Revenue based on levy districts.
Ennis School District is required by law to pay tuition for the students living in the district but attending school in the Big Sky School District in Gallatin County, according to Klasna. The tuition totals have fluctuated over the past two years and Klasna said this school year it is projected to be about $60,000. The Ennis School District also pays transportation contracts for families who live 3 or more miles from the nearest bus stop, totaling just over $5,000 last year.
One mother, Heather Morris, who lives in the Madison County portion of Big Sky, has four kids attending school in the Big Sky School District.
“My understanding was that as soon as we had six or more [students needing transportation] that we were going to have a bus,” she said at the meeting. “I’d like to know where that bus is.”
Paying for a bus driver in Big Sky is one way that Morris pointed out Ennis could provide Big Sky taxpayers with a service in return. This hasn’t been a reality so far and both trustees and attendees at the meeting expressed confusion about where efforts to buy a bus and hire a driver had landed.
Other ideas brought up in the meeting were an interlocal agreement between the two school districts and redrawing school district lines.