Big Sky voters could pay 87 percent
By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF
Correction: The date of the Open House at Ennis High School has been updated to Jan. 22.
ENNIS – Ennis School District #52 is proposing the third largest bond ever in the state of Montana in the upcoming Feb. 8 mail-in Madison County election. Among the electorate to approve or deny the bond are registered Big Sky voters residing in Madison County, who make up almost 12 percent of the Ennis School District voting bloc and contribute roughly 87 percent of the district’s property tax base, according to data from the Montana Department of Revenue based on levy districts.
The $59 million bond is intended to support an ambitious expansion of the Ennis school facilities including a new building, new gym and improvements to the existing junior high school wing. According to Ennis Schools Superintendent Casey Klasna, the district’s bonding capacity, or legal debt margin, is $355,324,820, a figure calculated as 100 percent of the district’s total taxable value less any outstanding debt. The $59 million bond measure is 16.6 percent of the district’s overall bonding capacity.
The existing high school building, built in 1971, is not meeting space and infrastructure needs, Klasna said, is not handicapped accessible and is not compliant with current building code. The district’s concern is that growth will outpace the existing facility, which is already overcrowded with classes held in every available space, according to Klasna. One such example is a raised platform located in the center of the high school building over the library where world language classes take place.
“The bottom line is we are doing this for our students and our education,” Klasna said. He emphasized the importance of providing quality education and a “positive and safe learning environment for students.”
Klasna said space is at a premium for the 411 students enrolled in the district. He explained that the junior high students are being pushed out of the building they share with the elementary school and into the high school building.
From last school year to now, Klasna said enrollment has increased by about 8 percent. The district’s plan is based on a 10-year Cohort Survival Method which predicts that enrollment will increase to as many as 680 students in 2031, a 65 percent increase from current enrollment.
The original high school building was built as an open concept and partitions were later added between classrooms that Klasna said do nothing to prevent sound leaking between classes. If the bond passes, construction on the expansion would start in June of 2023 and would finish in August of 2025.
The impact on taxpayers will be approximately $114 annually for a home with an assessed market value for tax purposes of $344,000, the median value of a home in the district. Based on current taxable values and interest rates, the 20-year bond will be broken into approximately 24.55 mills per year.
Though Ennis School District’s 441 Big Sky voters comprise approximately 12 percent of the district’s total 3,701 voters, Big Sky property owners in the district will pay an amount of the bond proportionate to the taxable value of the levy districts. That amount is currently 87 percent but could fluctuate over the years based on changes in taxable values.
To address this overlap with the Big Sky community, the Ennis School District Board of Trustees hosted a meeting with the Big Sky School District Board of Trustees on Jan. 5 to open a dialogue between the two districts, and to allow BSSD trustees to tour the Ennis school facilities.
During the meeting, BSSD Board Chair Loren Bough shared data on the Madison County portion of Big Sky as well as voter sentiments and comments the school board has heard.
One voting resident in the Madison County portion of Big Sky, Heather Morris, shared in a Jan. 12 interview with EBS that she felt out of the loop when the Ennis School District was creating a plan for the proposed bond.
“I found out about it through a friend,” she wrote in an email to EBS. “I know of another family who said they had something show up in their mail, however, that was not the case with us. Once I saw the PDF brochure it was clear there is a plan established and they are going for it.”
Morris encouraged every Big Sky resident in Madison County to view the proposal and to see if it makes sense.
“As a result of geographical barriers, and not through open enrollment, BSSD #72 is the school our kids go to—yet we do not enjoy the right to vote on [BSSD] school bonds, for school board members or even run for school board ourselves,” Morris wrote. “We would like for the state to consider redrawing the school district lines to incorporate all current and future homes where, because of geographic barriers, have or could have students end up at BSSD.”
During the meeting, the discussion quickly turned to how the Ennis district could better inform Big Sky voters on the bond issue.
“When you’re asked to pay more taxes to an entity that you’re not benefiting from, there will always be pushback,” said BSSD trustee Stacy Ossorio during the discussion.
As the evening progressed, several Ennis residents offered comments including Maria Marzullo, a former school board member and longtime community member.
“I, as a retired widowed homeowner, will receive no benefit from what this district wants to do,” Marzullo said in response to the concern raised by Ossorio. “I love children. I love education. I think the biggest investment we can make in our life is to educate our children. There are a lot of voters who are not going to personally benefit from anything whether they’re in the Big Sky area or the Ennis area.”
Kelley Knack, assistant girls’ basketball coach and Ennis community member, also weighed in.
“I feel that our communities are very entwined, and I think we always piggyback off the success of the other,” she said.
Knack’s comments echoed a larger discussion theme: consideration of how the Big Sky and Ennis communities interact and can learn from each other’s experiences.
BSSD trustees urged the Ennis board to provide more information on the upcoming bond to Big Sky voters through a meet-and-greet event to show voters where their money would go. Bough also encouraged Ennis trustees to consider the annual expenses required to upkeep the new facility, which he said would likely appear before voters every year as additional dollar requests.
“I’m just super appreciative that you’re willing to have this meeting and I thought the way forward is just the sharing of ideas and communication,” Bough said in the meeting.
The joint school board meeting concluded with an agreement that the two school boards will create a joint subcommittee or working group that includes members from both boards that will continue to meet and have an open dialogue.
“I thought that the meeting was very productive and apparent that both school boards want a great educational system in place for kids,” Klasna wrote in an emailed statement. “Having a good relationship with neighboring schools is important.”
Ballots for the upcoming election will be mailed on Jan. 20 and must be returned by 8 p.m. on Feb. 8. Ballots postmarked on Feb. 8 but received later will not be counted.
Ennis K-12 Schools will host an Open House on Saturday, Jan. 22 from 1-3 p.m. in the Ennis High School lobby to tour Ennis shareholders through the facility and answer questions.