Billings Catholic Schools recently paid off a $400,000 debt to the Diocese in Great Falls owed since at least 2002, school system officials said Wednesday at the annual State of the Schools address.
The debt was paid off near the end of the 2008-09 budget, allowing the school system to operate debt-free for the first time in nearly a decade and go into this school year looking at where the money usually reserved to pay off interest charges can be spent.
"We can now start to strategically think, 'What's ahead of us?' " said Rita Turley, chairwoman of the Billings Catholic Schools Board.
The debt was in place in 2002 when Bernie Harrington, a former board chair, was one of several people tasked with tackling it. He said the debt came from several large projects undertaken by the system in the past, as well as numerous small debts and interest accrued over time, which was all rolled into one sum.
For several years the system was simply paying off the interest charges so the debt wouldn't grow. As its finances stabilized in recent years, the system - specifically members of the Business Committee - focused its efforts toward wiping the debt out and was able to pay it off this summer.
"This year that debt to the diocese is paid and that money will be freed up to benefit our children," said Mike Heringer, who heads up the Business Committee, at the address.
State of the Schools is a yearly event held by Billings Catholic Schools administration and board members to inform parents of the goings-on within the system. Other issues discussed included:
• The system this year implemented a matrix pay scale to "reward teachers for their hard work," Turley said.
• One of last year's top priorities was repairing or replacing the boiler at Central. Replacing it could cost nearly $1 million, Principal Shel Hanser said. A task force was formed to look into the problem, and it found the boiler was in better shape than originally though. The boiler was repaired for $21,000.
• Principals from the four schools in the system reported test scores that were higher than the state average. Those tests include the ACT, Iowa Basics and MontCAS, which is the state's No Child Left Behind test. In addition, 95 percent of Central's graduates last year enrolled in postsecondary education, with nearly 60 percent of them receiving some type of scholarship.