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Art Ortenberg/Liz Claiborne
Foundation offer help

Swan School considers mill levy

by Suzanne Vernon
For the Pathfinder
January 22, 1998

Swan Valley Elementary School will lose $17,526 in state funding next year due to a decrease in enrollment, but local taxpayers may only be asked to pay half that amount, thanks to a pledge from the Art Ortenberg/Liz Claiborne Foundation which has offered to match $8,763 of the shortfall if voters approve a mill levy this spring for an equal amount.

Art Ortenberg and Liz Claiborne, who own a home at Lindbergh Lake, contacted the school and offered to help keep funding at the current level after learning that the district might otherwise face severe cuts.

The Ortenbergs, through a private foundation, have helped fund several programs at the school in recent years. Three years ago they provided matching funds for a one-time mill levy approved by voters to support a technology upgrade at the school. They currently also provide funding for the school's music and Spanish programs.

At a public meeting Monday night, school administrator, Kitty Logan, explained the current budget, line by line, sharing information about everything from teacher salaries to graduation expenses. The audience of nine people, including teachers and staff members, offered no suggestions for areas that could be cut to make up for the shortfall, leaving Logan to conclude that she should recommend that school trustees ask voters to approve a mill levy this spring. Preliminary figures show that the owner of a $100,000 home in Condon would see a tax increase of at least $20 next year if the levy is approved.

However, school trustee Ron Matthew cautioned that taxes for schools may go up higher than that because of other school funding issues that affect the amount of money that comes from the state and and the amount that comes from local property owners. He indicated that trustees will continue to try and get exact numbers from the county before the April elections.

Logan expressed concern about whether a mill levy would be approved in the Swan Valley. "I understand the tax burden," she said, explaining that many people in the Condon area are senior citizens who live on fixed incomes. However, Logan also expressed frustration in trying to balance the budget any other way. "I have been working with these budgets for nine years. I'm out of ideas for where to trim. I'm looking for ideas from the public," she said. She added that she believes the school district has been providing quality education with current budgets. She said that test results from Swan Valley 8th graders were above-average in all areas. "We are definitely getting our money's woth up here," she said, adding that the school does not pay exorbitant salaries. Swan Valley, she said, pays 62% of their budget in salaries, while most schools in Montana pay closer to 90%.

The Swan Valley School has operated solely with state funding for more than a decade, and has not asked voters to approve a mill levy for operation of the school in more than 14 years. Mill levies have been approved in the recent past to fund specific projects, such as the technology upgrade in 1995 and the construction of the gymnasium in the 1980s.

Alan Taylor, one of the local residents who attended the meeting, encouraged Logan to run a mill levy, especially in light of the offer of matching funds from the Ortenbergs.

"I'm impressed with how frugal you are with what you have," he said, adding that "we should thank our lucky stars" that Ortenbergs are willing to help.

Logan had earlier explained that school trustees anticipated funding problems several years ago, and have worked to trim the budget. She noted that the current funding problem may continue and that enrollment has dropped for two reasons. The school is graduating ten or twelve 8th grade students each spring, while only enrolling 4 or 5 kindergarten students each fall. In addition, families have moved away from Condon because of employment, she said, citing the closure of the boot camp at Goat Creek as one obvious impact on the school district.

"We're going to be in the same boat (with funding) next year unless people move in," she said.
A second public meeting regarding the current budget situation will be held on Tuesday January 27, 7 p.m. at the school. Trustees will make a final decision regarding the mill levy at their February 10 meeting.

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