School Board mission statement

The Billings District 2 School Board meets at the Lincoln Center on Monday, November 20, 2017.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

It was a trick that literally only Helena could pull off.

When the Legislature met in 2017, it had to slash payments it made to schools in order to cobble together a budget, which even when, even after it was passed, was inadequate and needed fixing during a Special Session. 

Yet when lawmakers agreed to cut payments to schools, it didn't stop the obligation of Montana's citizens to provide for public education. Instead, it just shifted the burden to taxpayers. In other words, the money all came from the same pockets, ours. 

Beyond essentially raising local taxes without voter approval, the Legislature also hobbled school districts from doing much more than surviving. 

Residents in nearly every corner of the state have seen their taxes increase just to maintain what they have because the state is giving less. Heaven help the school district that sees a decrease in the number of students, or which has to make an necessary costly repair. 

Residents are just now beginning to feel the constant upward pressure on their taxes while reports seem to indicate slow wage growth in the state or some stagnation.

And so it is both admirable and understandable that Billings Public Schools withdrew its earlier plans to ask residents for money to repair aging high schools.

Contrary to a popularly held belief: School districts don't always ask for money. Sometimes, they decide against it.

In this case, the school district's request is completely understandable. For years, Billings Senior High has been in need of updating. Billings' youngest public high school is now more than 30 years old, and a steadily increasing population continues to put stress on these buildings.

We do have a list of repairs, updates and renovations that are only going to get more expensive as the buildings experience more wear and tear. And, construction costs will likely only increase, especially in a community like Billings which has a lot of construction activity. That's why it seems to make sense to start updating these facilities so that it doesn't become catastrophically expensive later.

However, we also think that a failed levy attempt, coupled with voter fatigue could be disastrous for Billings and its public schools.

Billings has turned the tide of what was many failed levies. We saw the entire community rally around the "Yes For Kids" campaign and our community can boast two beautiful new middle schools and a list of upgrades and repairs to the elementary and other middle schools. 

This has certainly helped our community by investing in the infrastructure. However, it has also helped educating the leaders of Billings' future by providing excellent facilities.

Renovating and updating the high schools has always been a part of that plan, but it hasn't taken priority, standing behind the middle and elementary schools. 

Now, it will have to wait at least another year while the backlog of items grows. 

We believe trustees of the Billings Public Schools can use another year to prepare a list of top priorities along with a compelling case statement and campaign to the voters. We believe that residents are going to demand to know exactly what they'll be getting for an increase in taxes and why it's necessary. Because there's no shiny, new building, selling an update of the high schools may be a harder pitch. 

We just hope if there's any residual anger or frustration from voters, they'll know where to place the blame in Helena at the capitol, not in Billings at the Lincoln Center.