In a resounding win for Billings School District 2, voters overwhelmingly approved a pair of federal bonds worth $12 million Tuesday.
With the final votes in and 30,427 ballots counted, the two bonds passed with nearly 62 percent of the vote. The final votes were 16,207 for and 9,637 against in the elementary school district. In the high school district, there are 18,536 votes for and 11,743 against the bonds.
“It’s really encouraging,” said Barbara Bryan, Billings School District 2 board chairwoman. “And it’s a great start for (new Superintendent Keith) Beeman.”
Bryan said she wasn’t surprised with the results. She believed the voters understood that the bonds were a good deal and that the money was something obviously needed in the district.
“The benefit was so clear to the community,” she said.
The interest-free bonds were designated specifically for maintenance and construction projects. SD2 faces $123 million in deferred maintenance.
Planned projects include replacing the 70-year-old boiler at Senior High, replacing the roofs at 10 schools and replacing windows at seven schools. Also included were fire alarm system updates at four of the district’s oldest schools.
More than half the cost of the bonds will be paid for by federal stimulus dollars and state funds.
The projects were chosen specifically to help the district avoid “future catastrophic damage,” maximize utility savings and improve the learning environment for students at all its buildings across the city. The updates to roofs, windows and boilers would save the district $94,435 a year in energy costs.
District officials believed getting the bonds passed would take something like a miracle. Over the past decade, Billings voters have not been overwhelmingly supportive of district-pursued bonds and mill levies. Most recently, voters in May approved two of three mill levies worth $1.9 million, one of which, a technology levy for the high schools, passed by a scant 10 votes after a petition forced a recount.
Officials at the district had worried that pursuing a bond so quickly after winning the two mill levies could erode hard-earned voter trust.
“I’m very pleased,” Beeman said.
Like Bryan, he wasn’t surprised by Tuesday night’s results. He believed that once the community understood the nature of the bonds and the need to work on the schools, they would support the district.
“I didn’t take the community support for granted,” he said.
As votes were counted, the Yellowstone County election workers found themselves referring more ballots than usual to the resolution board to be counted. The ovals used to fill in a voter’s choice were harder to see this time than in elections past and some people complained that it made the ballots difficult to fill out.
“There’s been a little bit more of that,” said Brett Rutherford, county elections administrator.
But, he said, where voter intent was clear, the ballot was counted.
With the bonds now passed, the federal government will pay the interest on the bonds and the district will pay back the principal.
Helping reduce the district’s debt load is a sinking fund that will accompany the bond. A sinking fund works by collecting the monthly payments the district would make on the loans over the 16 years and putting them into an account earning interest.
When the debt comes due, the district will pay back the lump sum of what it owes from the sinking fund and then use the interest it has earned to further pay down the loan. Because the district will have paid no interest on the bond money it borrowed, the interest collected from the sinking fund will reduce the money taxpayers pay out of pocket to repay the loan.
In addition, there is a possibility of state assistance to help the district pay back the bond.
With the sinking fund and the state help, trustees are hopeful that, of the total $12 million borrowed, the district — and ultimately taxpayers — will have to pay back only about $5.5 million.
Based on that $5.5 million, a property owner with a $200,000 home will pay $8.66 a year in taxes for 16 years.
Contact Rob Rogers at email@example.com or at 406-657-1231.