School Board approves placing 3 levies on May ballot

2010-02-15T21:31:00Z School Board approves placing 3 levies on May ballotROB ROGERS Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
February 15, 2010 9:31 pm  • 

Speaking passionately about the district’s need for community support and financial assistance, Billings School District 2 Board trustees approved placing three mill levies on the May 4 ballot.

The first, a $1.8 million levy that would support the general operating fund for the elementary school district, received the majority of the attention. All three were approved in unanimous votes.

“This levy is critical to having our elementary schools continue on in the neighborhood school model,” said Trustee Joel Guthals.

The other two levies included a $1.4 million technology mill levy for the elementary school district and a $1.1 million technology mill levy for the high school district.

For the operating fund levy, the $1.8 million figure means property owners of a home with $100,000 assessed taxable value would pay $21 more a year, or $1.75 a month.

On the other two, the average property owner would pay a combined $4 a month more, Guthals said.

“It’s not very much money,” he said.

Recognizing some of the community criticism leveled at the district — that there’s waste at the school level, that there are too many administrators or that administrators are paid too much — Guthals said the arguments fall flat.

“We examine those contentions, and they don’t hold up,” he said. “We don’t have waste.”

Adding to Guthals’ point, Trustee Peter Gesuale listed numbers he took from the state’s Office of Public Instruction.

The district’s spending per student — about $8,000 — was one of the lowest rates among the state’s AA school districts, he said. In other words, little waste is happening at the school level, he said.

Pointing to administration, he said administrative costs in Billings, when calculated by the number of students in the district, were the lowest in the state.

Speaking to the efforts of the board’s budgeting committee, which includes members of the public, Mary Jo Fox said no one has been able to come up with the millions of dollars required to balance the district’s budget.

One of the options floated to help the district out of the red was to move the district to a cluster school model, a move that would spread the kindergarten-through-sixth-grade population from one school across three schools.

That proposal was rejected by both the budgeting committee and the board earlier this year. However, trustees, while opposed to clustering schools, have said it remains an option until they can balance the budget.

Fox took it one step further Monday, saying she would interpret a “no” vote on the upcoming mill level as “an order from the community” to cluster the district’s elementary schools.

Many of the trustees spoke of the danger to the growth and development of Billings if the community can’t show that it supports its own schools. The hospitals in town would have trouble hiring top doctors and business would be less likely to relocate here, they said.

To that point, board Chairman Malcolm Goodrich said that, if the levies don’t pass in May, the public would be “cutting our own throat as a community.”

Contact Rob Rogers at rrogers@billingsgazette.com or 657-1231.

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