Billings School District 2 officials are nervous.
Ballots were mailed Wednesday to Yellowstone County voters, and included on the ticket are five mill levies and two series of federal bonds. SD2 officials have spent the last month talking about how vital the money is to the district. Their hope now is that voters will agree.
For Lew Anderson, the district's facilities director, nothing makes more sense than the federal bonds for which SD2 is eligible.
It's free money from the federal government, he said. And it's the second time in two years that SD2 has been given the chance to go after it.
They're known as Qualified Zone Academy and Qualified Energy Conservation bonds and are worth $14 million. They're reserved for maintenance and facilities projects, similar to the federal bonds voters passed in 2010.
If voters approve these bonds, the federal government would pay the interest. In 2010, the district received $12 million in federal bonds, but it cost Billings taxpayers $5.8 million.
Similarly, should voters approve the $14 million in bonds, Billings taxpayers would cover $8.5 million of it.
It's got Anderson excited. The last round of bonds allowed the district to update the boilers and windows at Senior High, and replace roofs and windows all across the district.
If voters approve these bonds, the district would be able to replace the boilers and windows at West High, update the school's roof and replace roofs at another six schools.
"The basic envelope of the buildings are going to be covered," Anderson said. "We're gonna have a pretty good handle on the high schools."
The district has no real fund set aside for preventative maintenance. Under Montana law, school districts have the option to seek levies from their communities that would support a building reserve fund, but SD2 hasn't been able to get one passed in more than a decade.
In the meantime, deferred maintenance for district buildings has slowly built up until it peaked in 2010 at $122 million worth of work to be done. The majority of the district's 34 schools are 40 years old or older.
The federal bonds passed two years ago have slowly knocked down the deferred maintenance to about $110 million, Anderson said. If voters approve the new federal bonds, the district could take another chunk out of it.
"It takes the pressure off the general fund when we can do this in proactive ways," he said.
Sweetening the pot is the fact that if the district makes the upgrades to heating systems, windows and roofs, the school buildings will be exponentially more energy efficient, cutting down on SD2's power bills, Anderson said.
For example, he said, West High's boilers -- built in 1958 -- run at about 60 percent efficiency. New boilers would run 94 percent efficient, he said.
"This is a gift," said Dave Cobb, West High's principal.
Should both sets of bonds pass with voters, property owners with a $200,000 home would pay $11.42 a year in taxes.
To help better appeal to voters, interim Superintendent Jack Copps has been telling voters about tax payment assistance programs offered by the county and the state.
Max Lenington, the Yellowstone County treasurer, said residents on fixed incomes or living below the poverty line can get help paying their property taxes.
"There are two programs, actually," he said.
The first program works on a sliding scale. Any property owner making $19,930 or less a year -- for a married couple, it's a combined $26,573 a year -- can apply to have their property tax reduced.
The scale starts with a 30 percent reduction in property taxes for those earning near the top of the chart and slides to an 80 percent reduction for those earning near the bottom.
The second program is designed just for senior citizens. Property owners 62 years old or older and making $45,000 a year or less may apply for a complete refund of their property tax every year.
For those who take advantage of the programs, help like that can completely wipe out any effect a mill levy might have on property taxes, Lenington said.
The district's looming deferred maintenance was one of the reasons the board voted to go after a building reserve levy this year -- one of the five mill levies that will appear on the ballot.
SD2 last got voter approval for a building reserve fund in 2001. With the exception of Great Falls Public Schools, SD2 is the only AA district in the state without a building reserve levy.
On the ballot will appear a five-year $1 million levy for the high school district and one for the elementary school district.
Also on the ballot will be a $1.2 million technology levy for the district's elementary and middle schools. The majority of the district's computers there are more than five years old. A few date to 1999, said Karen Palmer, SD2's technology director.
Just the tech levy would cost property owners with a $200,000 home about $20 a year.
Finally, the district has placed on the ballot a $880,000 general fund mill levy for the elementary schools and a $150,000 general fund mill levy for the high schools.
The levies will go to help the district buy textbooks. The state joined the Common Core State Standards initiative last year, meaning that all across Montana, school districts will be upgrading their curriculum to fit a national standard.
To do that, SD2 wants to buy a new series of reading textbooks for the kindergarten through third-grade classrooms at a cost of about $886,000.
"The truth is, we would need those new textbooks even if we didn't have the Common Core requirements," Copps said.
Should the five levies and two bonds pass with voters, property owners with a $200,000 home would pay a total of $77 a year.