What do those mill levies really pay for?


David Crisp

The mail-in ballot for the School District 2 mill levy election is burning a hole in my table, crying out for a decision. Election day is May 2.

The school district wants to raise my taxes about $30 a year in order to buy new textbooks, increase programs at the Career Center and hire more staff to reduce class sizes and provide additional help to advanced and to struggling students. That’s just the kind of stuff schools ought to be doing, but still … .

It’s easy enough to find the cheerleaders for school spending—I need look no farther than the front yard, where my wife’s new landscaping includes a sign reading “Great Communities Support Great Schools: Vote Yes!”

But she’s a retired teacher, and a mill levy that can’t draw support from retired teachers isn’t going to win anybody’s vote. Getting a handle on what mill levy opponents think is much harder. Typically they don’t organize campaigns, put up signs or buy ads. But they turn out, year after year, to vote against school levies, and they often succeed.

Given that virtually nobody argues that educating children is a bad idea, what exactly are opponents thinking? A letter to the editor in Sunday’s Billings Gazette made the case that I have most often heard over the years: My property tax bill, the letter writer said, was not quite $1,200 a year back in 1999-2000. Now it is more than $1,900.

“The point is this; we have not seen the increases translate to, say, 65-70 percent improvement in the school system,” he wrote. “I would encourage anyone to vote no, now and forever on this unfair tax.”

As it happens, the letter writer has a house that must look a lot like mine. Our property taxes were $1,215 in 2000. In 2016, they were $2,083. So let’s take a closer look at those numbers, granting that not all of it goes to schools.

First, thanks to the magic of the internet, it’s easy these days to take inflation into account. Online calculators vary slightly, but basically it would cost about $1,755 this year to buy the same education that $1,200 would buy in 2000. In real dollars, my tax bill hasn’t gone up by more than $800; it’s gone up $328.

Still, $328 in 16 years is real money. For cheapskates like us, it’s a decent restaurant meal once a year, if we stick to drinking water.

But the basic inflation rate doesn’t tell the whole story. Precise numbers are surprisingly hard to nail down, but enrollment in School District 2 appears to have increased by about a thousand students since 2000. The district projects that high school enrollment alone will increase by another 900 students by 2024.

Besides that, medical costs, for example, rise faster than the rate of inflation just about every year. And school districts spend an awful lot of money on medical insurance—about $700 per month per employee for those on the cheap plan in School District 2.

A gallon of gasoline cost $1.39 in 1999, about a buck less than now. As that letter writer no doubt knows, gasoline cost far more just a few years ago, and school districts can’t do much to save on gasoline when they are providing bus rides to thousands of kids every day.

Those textbooks the school district wants? The price of college textbooks has increased at triple the rate of inflation over the last dozen or so years. Since school districts buy books in bulk, they have more bargaining power, but costs of up to $80 or $100 are not unusual even for elementary school texts.

You know what else has grown faster than inflation? Property values. Our house is valued at nearly three times what it was when we bought it in 1992. Just because our house is worth three times as much doesn’t mean we have three times as much money, but that’s how property taxes work. You can’t blame the school district for that.

The year 1999 had a few other peculiarities. It came near the end of a bad stretch for Montana teachers. In 1990, they were making 88 percent of the national average for teacher salaries. By 1999, the percentage had fallen to 76. Somewhere along the way, there had to be some catch-up money.

That year also was just about the time that computer use in schools nationwide was really taking off. It’s fair and fun to argue about how much good all those computers have done, but there was no avoiding them, and they cost a lot more than a few pencils in a cigar box.

Then, of course, there was the Great Recession of 2008. State funding for schools in Montana fell 4.3 percent in real dollars between 2008 and 2014. School District 2 last passed an elementary school levy in 2013 and a high school levy in 2007, so not all of that pain has washed away.

The state of Montana also pays only about half the national average for school construction and renovations. The deferred maintenance list just keeps getting longer.

Yeah, Billings schools probably are not 70 percent better than they were in 2000. But they might be a little better. Recent test scores indicate that Billings students consistently perform better than the national average on standardized tests.

None of that is to say you should go out and vote for the mill levies. For years, I voted for every one of them, almost unconsciously. After the 2002 teachers’ strike, I started paying attention.

I know how hard it is to vote to increase your own taxes when average wage increases have been mired near zero for a couple of decades. But if we are ever going to crawl out of that low-wage muck, we will have to get smarter. Those schools might be our best chance.

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