Toward the end of a seven-hour meeting Monday, Billings trustees voted 4-3 to support $135 million in future K-8 school construction and expansion.
Earlier, they voted 4-3 to put a $1.2 million K-8 technology levy on the ballot.
However, the seven trustees were unanimous in voting to place a $1 million operating levy request on the May 7 ballot. If voters approve that request, the money would be used to hire elementary teachers to reduce the number of overcrowded classrooms, which now stands at 99.
Passing any levy at any time will require a lot of work to inform voters and it will require strong board support. Ideally, the board would be united on major ballot issues.
Clearly, neither the technology levy nor the school master plan choice is ready for a ballot.
While the board Monday gave final approval to putting the teacher funding levy on the May 7 ballot, it voted only on “intent” to place the tech levy on the ballot. That levy still needs one more board vote to go on the ballot.
That further consideration is scheduled for a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. on March 13 in the Lincoln Center boardroom. Also on the agenda, at the request of Trustee Travis Kemp, who was joined by Trustee Connie Wardell, is reconsideration of the master plan vote.
Both of these issues require further board discussion.
Four trustees, including Kemp and Wardell, voted Monday to support building two 6-8 middle schools, expanding Broadwater and McKinley elementary schools and building a new K-5 elementary all as part of the first and largest phase of a new master facilities plan.
Superintendent Terry Bouck had recommended delaying construction of a new elementary school into a second phase of the master plan.
Bouck also advised trustees to put only the operating levy for teachers on the May ballot, not the tech levy.
First things first
We certainly agree that classroom technology would benefit Billings students. However, first things first. This district’s biggest, most pressing problem is inadequate funds to staff elementary classrooms. Most of the 99 oversize classes are in K-2 where no more than 20 students are supposed to be in a class. Some Billings primary classrooms have 28 students. Some of those schools don’t have another classroom to use even if the district had the money for another teacher.
A levy request for new facilities and improvements to existing schools won’t be on the May ballot. Whenever that request is taken to voters, it will require solid support and the school district will have to demonstrate that it has ongoing resources to properly staff new and existing schools.
In this case, the most urgent need -- money for elementary teachers -- is also a long-term priority that would enable the district to move forward with facility improvements to enhance the educational opportunities for all our students.
When trustees take another look at a tech levy and the recommended sequence for new facilities, they should be clear that saying “not now” doesn’t mean “never.”
A $1 million boost in the elementary budget would go a long way toward reducing the number of oversize classes. It would cost the owner of a $200,000 house about $17 a year in additional taxes.
If trustees and other education advocates work very hard, they can communicate the benefits of that proposition to voters who will start casting ballots in mid-April. All registered Billings voters will receive ballots in the mail.
We urge trustees to focus on reducing oversize classrooms as the highest priority for the May election, to work to earn community support for that important step and then build on positive momentum into the future.