Residents of the Ennis School District need only take a look at how their schools have been run in recent years to see why government is viewed with so much contempt these days.
When Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock issued his final opinion last week that Ennis illegally used millions of dollars from the adult education and transportation funds to build a new school, it confirmed what should have been obvious. Now Ennis residents have a new school building where people won’t sit next to each other because of the bitter wedge its construction has driven through the community.
It is shocking that a board would have the arrogance to think it was going to build a $10 million school by playing a giant shell game with funds that did not require a public vote and then have no one question it.
Board members have pointed to the green light they received from an official with the state Office of Public Instruction in 2010. But that same official also pointed out that storing millions of dollars in non-voted funds and transferring it for new school construction was highly unusual. OPI also noted the money still had to be used in part for the purpose for which it was originally designated.
Yet the board moved ahead. And when some community members and taxpayers questioned the proposal, they had their own internal auditor conduct an assessment that found that 49 percent of the new building, based on square footage, would be used for adult education, with 15 percent for transportation and the remaining 36 percent going for K-8 education.
The Ennis School Board wants its constituents to believe it had to build a $10 million school to offer adult education classes. It even proved it by dramatically expanding its adult education offerings just as the new building was opening.
But the board isn’t fooling anyone. This was never about adult education — it was a backdoor way to get a new school without having to go to the voters for a bond issue, as state law lays out.
This may just be the tip of the iceberg with Ennis Schools’ financial problems. One board member elected after the controversial decision — Lisa Frye — has been an outspoken critic of the fund transfers and had the courage to speak publicly about it. She’s said she’s seen other problems, including using the funds to pay teachers’ salaries and buy housing for other teachers. Frye has called for a thorough independent audit of the district’s finances.
That would be a good start. But another important step to fixing this debacle would be for the board to fess up and admit its intent all along. It should apologize to the community, then work to play by the rules that every other school district in the state does. Honesty like that would be a refreshing change.
Schools are the cornerstone of every community and especially in small towns. When a town needs a new school, it usually involves years of planning and then educating the public on the need before ultimately floating a bond issue.
The process requires openness and a great deal of discussion that over time builds up community support. In the end a community is left with schools that, while never drawing 100 percent support, were reached on the basis of consensus.
When people see the result of that process, it builds pride in the community. In Ennis, taxpayers see a beautiful new school building that has deeply divided their town, not drawn it together.
— The Montana Standard