By Maria Wyllie Explore Big Sky Associate Editor
BIG SKY – Big Sky area taxpayers voted on March 10 against a building reserve levy of $840,000 to finance completion of the new Ophir Elementary School, located just north of and contiguous to the current school campus along Highway 191.
The Gallatin County Election Office counted 660 ballots, 283 in favor of the levy and 377 against it; 47.5 percent of eligible voters participated.
A building reserve levy is used to complete the needs of a specified project, and funds are issued via Montana’s INTERCAP Loan Program, which offers short-term, low-interest loans to the state’s local governments, state agencies and universities.
While the levy didn’t pass, the new school will still open for the 2015-16 school year – just not the way levy supporters had hoped, according to Big Sky School District Superintendent Jerry House.
“The building will be built, but the insides … won’t be finished the way we want them to be finished,” House said.
BSSD requested the funds to pay for a number of items in the new k-4 building, such as furnishings and equipment; exterior landscaping; gymnasium furnishings and a laundry room; an outdoor playground classroom; and communication systems.
The school board cut these items from the budget after the project team assessed more than $1 million in costs associated with poor soil conditions requiring geotechnical remediation and structural upgrades; radon mitigation; and more expansive site construction due to topography challenges, such as leveling wet soil.
“We’re still in the thinking stage of what we’re going to do next,” said House, adding that he is currently fielding questions and gathering comments to ascertain why people voted the levy down.
Jerry Pape, who owns Triple Creek Realty and has lived in Big Sky since 1972, says he voted against the levy because he thinks the school should have been better prepared for such an expensive, large-scale project.
“I don’t think it makes a lot of sense not to protect yourself by spending a few bucks on a geotech to give you an opinion on what the ground will hold,” said Pape, suggesting the school should have hired a financial consultant. “I like the school, but I think the administration better start getting a little more fiscally responsible. They can’t depend on the community backing all their plays.”
The next step is for the school board to reconvene with the facilities committee, administration and the construction management team, said Loren Bough, chair of the school board. Bough hopes the group will spend the next month developing alternative scenarios for completing the school.
The 23-member facilities committee was created by the school board in fall 2012 to examine the possibility of constructing the new elementary school, and is responsible for advising the school board on this project, according to Bough.
“The board understands the message of need wasn’t received,” Bough said. “But one take away is that when levies don’t pass, there are more widespread consequences across the entire budget of the school district.”
It’s unknown at this point where these budget cuts might be, he added.
Big Sky local Shana Seelye, who has two children attending Ophir Elementary next fall, voted in favor of the levy. She says her kids will enjoy the extra space in the new building, but she’s disappointed about the lack of available resources and programming that the budget can’t cover.
“I think people got really hung up on the fact that the foundation planning wasn’t what they thought it should have been,” Seelye said. “[They] don’t see that the taxes they aren’t willing to pay won’t change the foundation. What it will change is the programming and the resources available to our kids starting immediately this fall.”
The new elementary school is currently 60 percent complete, according to Bryan Tate of Tate Management, which is representing the school during construction of the building.