With three mill levies on the ballot, Billings residents voted on Tuesday the way they have for a long time — residents on the West End overwhelmingly approved all three mill levies while residents on the South Side strongly opposed them.
Only this time, a voter turnout of 53 percent was enough for two of the levies — the $1.8 million general fund elementary school levy and the $1.1 million high school technology levy — to garner enough “yes” votes to pass. The first won approval by a margin of more than 2,000 votes and the second squeaked by with just 27 votes.
They are the first levies to win voter approval since 2007 and they bring the district’s total to six approved levies of 11 attempts since 2000. They’ll help the district meet its financial obligations this year and update technology for the high schools in the future.
The voter breakdown, with pockets of support throughout the west and central areas of the city and clusters of opposition in the south and the Heights, is traditionally how Billings votes.
“That has always been the case,” said Jack Copps, superintendent of Billings School District 2.
For Connie Wardell, the new SD2 board trustee elected from the West End, the voting patterns make sense.
“(It’s) economics and expectations,” she said.
There’s less money on the South Side and more families who struggle to make ends meet. Levies oftentimes seem like extras that they simply can’t afford, she said.
Travis Kemp, who represents the South Side on the school board and was re-elected Tuesday night, said the financial crisis has taken a toll on voters.
“People in my district might be feeling it more,” he said.
On the West End, families have more disposable income and tend to be better educated. Trustee Mary Jo Fox, who ran unopposed Tuesday and represents the Heights on the school board, recalled levies that were proposed to fund the construction of Skyview High and Castle Rock Middle School in the Heights.
Both were shot down by voters in the Heights, but there was enough support from the West End that they passed, she said.
Also, she said, “turnout tends to be lighter in the South Side and the Heights.”
Turnout on the South Side this year was 38 percent compared to 57 percent on the West End. The east side of the Heights had a turnout rate of 45 percent. On the west side of the Heights, the rate was 53 percent.
Still, after the numbers have been parsed and the trends examined, school supporters are simply pleased the levies passed.
“I’m extremely grateful to this community,” Copps said. “Quite frankly, this was a very generous show of support.”
Bruce MacIntyre agreed.
“The community embraced the need to pass the mill levy for the general fund,” said MacIntyre, director of government affairs for the Billings Chamber of Commerce and its liaison to the school district.
With the passage of the general fund levy, neighborhood schools are safe and the district now has critical funds to allow it to move into the next school year, Copps said.
However, officials understand the levies aren’t cure-alls for the district.
“It gives us some breathing room,” Wardell said. “But it’s really backfilling, we all knew that.”
The district still faces a potential $6 million shortfall for 2012 and threats of less funding from the state.
“It’s still very challenging ahead,” Fox said. “We have to be conservative” with district spending.
Copps agreed. “We just have to be smart.”
Contact Rob Rogers at email@example.com or at 657-1231.