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Billings passes first high school levy in 12 years

Superintendent Greg Upham reacts as polling results show that Billings passed the high school levy during a watch party at CJ's Garage on Tuesday.

Billings high school district voters approved a high school operational levy for the first time in 12 years Tuesday night. 

Money from the tax raise will fund new textbooks and career counselors at Billings high schools. 

The 60%-40% vote was hailed as a step toward building a culture of consistent levy passage by superintendent Greg Upham. 

"I'm so pleased with the support from the community," he said, both from voters and those who campaigned for the levy. "It reinforces the importance of getting out and talking to people."

Billings passes first high school levy in 12 years

Superintendent Greg Upham, right, embraces Todd Buchanan after polling results show that Billings passed the high school levy during a watch party at CJ's Garage on Tuesday.

Upham has advocated not only for this year's levy, but also for consistent passage like that in Missoula or Bozeman

Montana's school funding formula sets a minimum budget using state, federal and local money. But local voters can choose to exceed budgets by about 20%, and if a tax raise is approved, it rolls over from year to year.

A pro-levy campaign raised about $36,000, according to reports filed April 25. About half of that money was reported spent at the time of the report. 

Yard signs, billboards, radio ads and a new website all touted the levy. Students showcased tattered textbooks. Upham was aggressive in advocating for the levy. 

Billings has passed some recent elementary levies, in addition to a $122 million bond in 2013. But the high school district, which includes surrounding K-8 districts like Independent, Elder Grove and Blue Creek, has been a tougher sell. 

The 2007 high school levy, the most recent to pass before this year, won by a whopping 3,000-plus vote margin. But it didn't set a trend. 

That vote had a big-ticket item on a topic that had resonated with the community; money would be used to reopen Beartooth Elementary, which had been shuttered since 2001. 

This year's levy supporters have pushed the importance of replacing textbooks and providing better career counseling. But it's hard to say either of those options is as tangible as a school reopening. 

On Tuesday night, Upham hoped that this was the beginning of a trend that would stick, unlike 2007. 

Billings passes first high school levy in 12 years

Supporters react as polling results show that Billings passed the high school levy during a watch party at CJ's Garage on Tuesday.

He felt the the message about connecting students to the local workforce caught on well with voters. 

When results were announced at a gathering of administrators and levy supporters, the excitement had those assembled acting more like students. 

Local teachers union president Rita Wells let out a Kool-Aid Man-esque, "Oh yeah!"

Upham, eyeing a smartphone as cheers erupted around him, said "Oh my God."

Llew Anderson, a longtime district administrator who works with local businesses, was a little more pointed: he saw passage as "a sign of good things to come."

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.