Ballots in the mail for Libby school election

| April 28, 2020 8:46 AM

Pandemic or no, voters in Libby School District No. 4 must decide whether to let administrators and police officials bring a fulltime resource officer on board.

Ballots should begin arriving in voters’ mailboxes in advance of the May 5 election. They feature a single question: whether or not the school board can draw roughly 5.24 mills from taxpayers to outfit a school resource officer.

It is the second time in as many years Libby school and law enforcement officials have asked voters for the officer. Last year, voters defeated the proposal 1,141 to 906.

A grant from Flathead Electric Cooperative would provide $100,000 over the first five years of the officer’s employment. But officials want to keep the position around for the long run, which means providing the roughly $70,000 it takes to outfit a police officer annually.

The cost includes salary, but also equipment, like a laptop, firearms and protective vest. Officials say the mill levy will add about $7.07 to the tax on a home valued at $100,000 or $14.15 on a $200,000 piece of property.

When school and police officials announced a second attempt earlier this year, they emphasized that they were pursuing the position because the electric utility was still on board.

Representatives with Flathead Electric, which must follow strict requirements how it can use unclaimed capital credits, approached Libby officials and signaled the utility’s willingness to try again, and this time help campaigning in the lead up to the election.

“Flathead Electric believes strongly in the program and wants to try again,” Kessel said in March. “They are willing to try and contribute one last time to the Libby community.”

In the weeks following the announcement, supporters in law enforcement, on the school board and in the school administration said they would make a stronger case for the position. They also hoped to encourage those who sat out last year to cast ballots.

But the COVID-19 pandemic upended plans. Stay-at-home restrictions have made campaigning difficult and much attention has been fixed on the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“I think everything’s been overtaken by COVID-19,” said Ellen Johnston, chair of the Libby Public School Board. “We would still very much like to have that resource officer. We certainly hope the City of Libby will feel the same way. We do know that everybody is distracted by something bigger.”

Last year, voters walked into polling stations to cast their support or opposition to the proposition. This year, per instructions of county officials, they will mail in ballots. The change is meant to mitigate the possible spread of coronavirus even as the threat seems to ebb, momentarily, in Montana.

The June 2 primary election, too, will be held via mail-in ballot in Lincoln County.

But Superintendent Craig Barringer said that the pandemic has underscored the need for a school resource officer. Since schools shuttered, officials have been unable to contact a handful of families.

We have found a need for this through this COVID crisis: We have families we cannot contact, and we contact them for many reasons to include safety, just to see how they’re doing,” Barringer said.

On top of the other benefits touted by supporters of a school resource officer, the added security at the district’s buildings and the ability to intervene with troubled students, being able to check in on the city’s children was an unforeseen advantage.

“Maybe they don’t have Facebook or Internet access and we’re not skilled investigators, but finding a few of them has been a challenge. And we’re not doing it because we’re Big Brother, we’re concerned about helping their families, if we can,” Barringer said.