The last time a general obligation mill levy failed in Bozeman was 1982.
“We have a community that’s very connected to the schools and proud of the schools,” said Steve Johnson, the business services director for Bozeman Public Schools.
It’s the kind of success Billings School District 2 officials and supporters dream about.
Over the last decade, voters in Billings have rejected seven of the last 11 mill levies brought forward by SD2. The last to pass was an $800,000 mill levy in 2008.
Johnson believes much of Bozeman’s success is due in part to the city’s demographics and the city’s perception of its schools. Nearly half the city has school-age children, compared to only 19 percent in Billings. And, as the home to Montana State University, much of the community tends to be educationally minded, Johnson said.
He also said the district hasn’t had a teachers strike in recent memory. Some officials in Bozeman openly wonder if that’s one of the reasons Billings struggles to pass its mill levies, he said.
In November 2002, SD2 was divided by a three-week teacher strike that still elicits raw feelings with some groups.
Kathy Kelker, who served on the SD2 board for 18 years, wondered if the teachers strike from 1975 was more to blame. She said many who experienced the ’75 strike carried those sore feelings into the strike in 2002, compounding the issue.
Whether the strikes are to blame for the failed mill levies, Kelker isn’t sure.
“That’s more difficult to discern,” she said.
Like others, she thinks the 19 percent figure factors into it. She also points to some of the anti-government sentiment that floats around the town — people who “relish the opportunity to say ‘no’ to any tax.”
Bruce Messinger, superintendent of Helena Public Schools, said that right on the heels of the Billings strike in 2002, his district worked to bolster teacher pay to ensure that something similar didn’t happen there. Officials did it by making their case to the community first.
“We worked pretty hard at that,” he said.
The district has never had a teacher strike. Messinger said voters approve an elementary school and a high school mill levy every year.
“Every time it has passed,” he said. “We have a pretty long history” of passing mill levies.
The district actively works to keep its budgeting process and contract negotiations as transparent as possible so the community understands how the district is using its money. Messinger said he thinks that has helped the district’s success.
“We do quite a bit to get the information out to the community,” he said.
J.R. Richardson, business director for Butte Public Schools, said his board, like Helena, tries to show fiscal responsibility to its residents.
“It’s important for the perception of the community,” he said.
Butte also has passed its mill levies every year. But Richardson pointed out that because the district is small the levies tend to be smaller.
This year, the district is seeking a $25,000 general obligation mill levy for its elementary school district.
Because Billings, the biggest school district in the state, has to pass bigger levies, it should campaign as much as possible to get support, Richardson said.
“I think that’s a good move,” he said.