When Billings Public School trustees meet at 5:30 p.m. Monday, the May 4 school elections will be on the agenda. The board will consider what, if any levy proposals to present to voters.

Many local citizens will say that this is a terrible time to be asking for a tax increase.

Those most familiar with the Billings Public Schools budget and projections for the next few years will respond that this is a terrible time to pass up an opportunity to seek financial support for sustaining our schools.

The costs of operating Montana’s largest school district are big because we are educating 15,500 students — one in 10 public school students in the state. On a per student basis, the Billings K-12 budget for this school year comes out to $7,825 per student. As illustrated in the pie chart at right, 73 percent of the money is spent directly on instruction, including classroom support and instructional improvement. Eight percent goes to administration (principals and office staff) in the school buildings. One percent goes to district administration, including the superintendent. The district spends 2 percent of budgeted funds on athletics and activities and a slim 4 percent on operating and maintaining its 30 school buildings.

Statewide budget information from the Office of Public Instruction shows that on average, Montana public schools spend 11.6 percent on administration and 71.9 percent on instruction. Expenditure per pupil for Montana K-12 students this year is $9,670, including American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, according to OPI.

Staff salary increase

Relatively speaking, Billings Public Schools operate at a frugal level. The largest expenditure is for staff and the majority of staff are teachers, whose salaries are competitive with other Montana AA districts. The teachers and district are in the second year of a three-year contract that provided a 2 percent across-the-board raise last year (when other AA districts’ teachers were getting more) and a 3.75 percent raise this year when other large districts are providing less. The Billings Education Association contract calls for a 3.6 percent increase next year. Contracts for the district’s two other employee unions provide similar salary increases. Meanwhile, the district’s employee health insurance costs rose 12 percent this year and are projected to increase 12 percent again next year.

Teachers’ jobs have been directly affected by school budget cuts over the years, such as elimination of aides for oversize K-6 classes and reduction in supplies spending. Billings is fortunate to have an excellent, experienced pool of teachers. Normally, a 3.6 percent raise would be reasonable. But this isn’t a normal time. As education advocates work to get voter support for a mill levy, the BEA would buy a lot of goodwill if it indicated a willingness to revise its work contract to recognize that the local economy has changed since the contract was negotiated two years ago. Many Billings taxpayers have had layoffs, pay cuts or zero raises.

BEA president Jeff Greenfield is opposed to changing the contract now. In an interview with The Billings Gazette, he noted that the teachers agreed to a lower salary increase in negotiations two years ago when the district had a tight budget. Many teachers have planned their retirement based on that three-year contract, Greenfield said. However, he said, if the Legislature meets in special session and changes school funding, either the union or district can call to reopen the contract.

“If there’s a significant decrease in funding, we probably would change that contract,” Greenfield said. He also expects that the next teacher contract, to be negotiated a year from now, will contain raises of zero to 1 percent.

Superintendent Jack Copps and district finance director Thomas Harper agree that salary increases likely will be little or nothing in 2011-2012. Harper’s budget projections for the next biennium show multimillion-dollar annual shortfalls and assume zero salary increase.

In the next biennium, the state could have a general fund shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars, and a substantial part of that, perhaps $200 million, could be a shortfall in funding education — kindergarten through college, said Bruce MacIntyre, who is heading the Yes for Kids campaign in support of an elementary levy. MacIntyre is governmental affairs director for the Billings Chamber of Commerce and a member of the school district’s Budgeting for Results Committee.

‘Edge of a cliff’

“A mill levy would step up funding,” MacIntyre said. “It’s not to balance the budget, it’s to cushion that shortfall.”

“A $1.9 million levy would provide us considerable protection for K-6 schools for the next two years,” Superintendent Jack Copps said. “We are standing right at the edge of a cliff. This is the time to protect the future of neighborhood schools.”

Trustees have already authorized the administration to use one-time federal stimulus law funding toward reducing the shortfall in the 2010-2011 elementary and high school budgets. Copps said administration has identified cuts that would close the rest of the gap between projected revenues and projected costs of continuing the programs and staffing in place this year. Passing a levy this spring, wouldn’t add services or staff, but it could ease some cuts in 2010-2011 and save money for expected leaner years ahead.

The question before trustees Monday night is whether to ask voters to pay for the locally voted portion of school funding that state law allows. The larger question for this community, is how to continue providing quality education to all 15,500 Billings students this year, next year and beyond.

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