Supporters make final push in school bond election campaign

2013-11-01T01:00:00Z 2014-02-24T16:13:14Z Supporters make final push in school bond election campaignBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Supporters of the $122 million bond sought by School District 2 are making one final push this weekend to get people to vote.

To be counted, ballots must arrive to the Yellowstone County elections office by Tuesday. Voters who plan to mail in their ballots will need to ship them off by Friday.

Otherwise, ballots can be dropped off at the elections office from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday.

Supporters are hopeful for positive results. The $122 million bond would improve, remodel and renovate most of the elementary schools in the district, and build two new middle schools.

“We’re building a future for a great community,” said Jim Duncan, co-chairman of the Yes For Kids campaign.

A confluence of rising enrollment and aging buildings has placed enough pressure on the district that action must be taken, he said.

Well-functioning and well-funded schools give students the best shot for a good education and make the community so much more appealing to businesses and families looking to relocate to Billings, he said.

Central to the bond campaign has been a discussion of whether a bond was the best way to supply the needed funds for remodeling and construction or if a mill levy was the better option.

Money raised through levies carry no interest while bonds do.

As such, the $36 million portion of the bond marked for deferred maintenance would carry about $19 million in interest over the 20 years of the bond’s life.

Steve Corning, a developer with construction projects across the state, said there would be no real savings in going for a levy.

Levy money can only be spent a little bit at a time — in this case, over the course of a decade. That means all the money that would have been saved by paying no interest is wiped out by inflated construction costs, he said.

In Billings over the last decade he’s seen construction costs go from $45 per square-foot in 2003 to about $85 per square-foot today.

“Getting it done quickly and getting it done in one fell swoop” is the smartest way to use that money, he said.

Also, the state reimburses school districts for the interest they pay on bonds.

“The state provides a subsidy to taxpayers for bonds, but not building reserve levies,” Superintendent Terry Bouck told voters. “In our case, this is projected to be over $27 million.”

All over the district, years of accumulated deferred maintenance have created frustrating problems for teachers and custodial staff members.

School funding law in Montana is designed so that funds for building maintenance are to be raised by voter-approved building reserve levies.

In Billings, the school board’s reluctance over the years to place building reserve levies on the ballot and the community’s reluctance to vote for them led to a deferred maintenance bill for SD2 facilities that topped out at $120 million in 2010.

The last building reserve levy passed by Billings voters was in 2001 and expired in 2006.

Also centered in the bond debate are questions of whether the district can afford to operate two new middle schools once they’re built.

The first blow came earlier this month when fall enrollment for SD2 came in lower than anticipated, which will bring in less state funding.

SD2 administrators point out that while fewer students showed up this fall, it was still enough to fill half an elementary school.

Bouck and chief financial officer Leo Hudetz have put together a detailed plan on what the district will have to do to afford running the new schools. The plan is accessible on the district’s web site.

“The administration has worked to be very transparent through this whole process,” said Heidi Duncan, co-chairwoman of the Yes For Kids campaign.

Bouck and facilities director Lew Anderson have given more than 200 presentations to the community through the summer and fall, working to educate the public on the district’s needs and its plans.

They’ve welcomed the tough questions and tried to answer them honestly, Heidi Duncan said.

For Jim Duncan, that’s what the whole campaign comes down to.

“It’s about trust,” he said.

Trust that the superintendent and the board will do what they’ve said they’re going to do, he said.

Trust in the district on the part of the community has steadily grown over the last two years and the Duncans hope that the successful passage of the bond and its implementation will continue to build that trust.

“The time is right,” he said.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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