This is part 1 in a three part series covering the Ennis and Ophir school districts.
By Taylor Anderson, Explorebigsky.com Assistant Editor
Madison County, Big Sky— The borders were established long before Chet Huntley had his grand vision of a destination ski resort on Lone Mountain.
Before Route 64 was created and would deliver residents and tourists to what is now the site of two ski resorts, Madison and Gallatin County lines were created.
Along those same lines, between the Big Sky Mountain Village and the Big Sky Meadow Village, the Ennis and Ophir school districts meet.
With hundreds of people living at the resorts in Madison County, and nearly 400 more at the Yellowstone Club, Big Sky residents are at a crossroads.
The resort developments are in Madison County, and Jack Creek Road, which runs between Big Sky and Ennis, is private. Without access to that road, it’s a 90-mile trip north from Big Sky to Bozeman and then southwest to Ennis, which sits just miles west of Big Sky as the crow flies.
The issue has been around as long as the resort: Big Sky taxpayers are funding services they feel they can’t readily use in the Madison Valley, one of which is the school.
But Madison County commissioners say the town benefits from services that go unseen, and believe there is nothing wrong with Big Sky residents’ taxes heading to the valleys west of Lone Mountain.
Most recently, attention has been focused on the schools.
After a recent Attorney General ruling that a new $9 million Ennis grade school was funded inappropriately, a decades-old debate in a town that spans two counties has been stoked, and some Big Sky residents want change.
The fundamental question behind the issue lies in one short sentence, as said by Ophir School Board member Barbara Rowley: “Why are we in the Ennis School District?”
Ophir School District is 99 years old. Ennis School District is 96 years old. Officials followed Madison and Gallatin County lines to establish the east-west border for the schools.
The issue became prevalent during development in the Big Sky section of Madison County that started in the 1970s and continues today. The recent accusations against Ennis Superintendent Doug Walsh have agitated those affected.
Walsh, who announced his resignation at a Feb. 8 school board meeting, has been accused of fraud, misuse of public funds and illegally collecting benefits.
Although once approved by the Montana School Boards Association, Attorney General Steve Bullock decided early this year that funds raised by levies for adult education shouldn’t have been used to build the elementary and middle school in Ennis.
The school is said to have put $4 million in property taxes levied for adult education and transportation toward the new building, which Bullock later said was illegal in a contested decision.
Attorney Debra Silk has said that OPI Chief Dennis Parman said in 2010 the money shift was legal if the building was used for adult education.
The high value real estate in Big Sky and the Yellowstone Club contributed more than $13 million in taxes in 2011, 50 percent of all property taxes collected that year in that county. Over the past five years, Big Sky districts of Madison County have contributed a shade more than half of the entirety of Madison County’s property tax revenues.
The two, in districts 28 and 29 of Madison County, are the highest taxed districts in that county.
Big Sky and Yellowstone Club residents in Madison County in 2011 contributed $2,382,223.05 to the Ennis school system.
This year, 331 students attend Ennis K-12. That school’s budget last year was $16,754,554.51, according to budget information listed on the Montana Office of Public Instruction website.
Ophir School District enrolled 212 students this year and had an operating budget last year of $2,309,682.56.
At a meeting last month on proposed changes to the Lone Peak High School curriculum, Big Sky parent and Madison County resident Erik Lovold brought up an alternative to school changes: school district lines.
Lovold said he’s tired of paying for a school his 14-year-old daughter can’t feasibly attend, to which the public and members of the school board (including Superintendent Jerry House) murmured in agreement.
“The [Ennis] school system is the thing that I think our kids are missing out on the most,” Lovold said.
Lovold says he and other Big Sky parents in Madison County get money annually from Ennis as reimbursement for the hour and a half commute from the Mountain Village to Lone Peak High School and back home each day. What would be more helpful, he says, is a school bus that would pick up Madison County students who attend the Ophir schools.
Ophir reimburses parents who live outside the bus route.
Ten of the 212 students in Ophir School District this year live across the county line, according to LPHS staff.
Ennis schools reimburse Ophir for tuition at a rate of $991 per year for elementary students, and $1,268.60 for high school students.
Madison County commissioner Jim Hart said that about a decade ago there was a discussion in the Montana Legislature about rearranging school districts. He said both school boards and superintendents must agree on a rearrangement before action is taken. But that’s beside the point, because Hart said he doesn’t see a problem with the current setup.
Asked whether the state should rearrange the districts, Hart said “I’ll just give that short answer, no.”
“I think they’re there as a result of where the county boundaries are. That creates some heartache I’m sure with Big Sky,” he said.
Hart spent 27 of his 30 years as a teacher in Ennis, and said that some members of the Ennis school board are former students of his.
Hart pointed out that his county has spent money on services that directly apply to the Big Sky area. Madison County has spent $90,000 in the last three years on the Skyline bus service, he says, which Gallatin County hasn’t.
Madison County also pays $244,996 annually for police in Big Sky, a cost that is split by the two counties along with additional funding from Big Sky Resort tax funding. Resort tax funded about $122,500 during 2012 appropriations.
“I’m happy they’ve got a great school over there. I’m just not happy that we’re not able to take advantage of any of those services,” Lovold said. “If our kids were able to take the back road down Moonlight and go to school in Ennis, okay, that makes sense, but that’s not even an option.”
“The wrongs have to be righted,” Lovold said. “We need to see that there’s a better split for that, and that our students and our school is benefitting from the area that we’re in.”