A bill that would allow Lockwood voters to create a high school district was resoundingly passed by the Montana House on Wednesday.
With a 97-3 margin, Senate Bill 139 is now headed for Gov. Steve Bullock's desk.
It would give a handful of Montana K-8 school districts the option to vote to expand into a high school district, opening the door to a split between Lockwood and Billings Public Schools.
Lockwood, a K-8 district, sends its high school-age students to Billings high schools. Lockwood, along with East Helena and Missoula Hellgate, championed a similar bill in 2015, but controversial provisions — namely an asset split between districts — sank the proposal.
A series of meetings beginning in 2015 between Billings and Lockwood trustees were contentious early, inflamed by Billings' redistricting process that removed a high school choice provision that applied only to Lockwood students. Later meetings were more cordial but reached little resolution between the districts.
Billings trustees are the last holdout among several education groups that opposed the 2015 bill. Helena interim Superintendent Jack Copps spoke in favor of the current bill, and it's supported by the state teacher's union.
The law would give K-8 districts that are eligible to expand to K-12 a five-year window to make the move. Districts would have to vote to expand, then vote again within two years to pass a bond to build a high school. If either vote fails, districts have to wait for another five-year window.
School District 2 has argued that the uncertainty of whether it will enroll Lockwood students in the future complicates its planning, especially for advanced and elective classes and special programs.
"Repeated consideration of an expansion bill makes any long-range fiscal and educational planning for our school district business challenging, if not impossible," wrote SD2 board chair Greta Besch Moen in a letter to legislators.
Based on changes in tax base and student enrollment, SD2 Chief Financial Officer Mike Arnold estimates that Billings would loose about $1.6 milion in budget authority in its current budget. His projections show a 2.65 mill increase in SD2's school year budget for Billings taxpayers. Previous Gazette projections and state projections also predicted a modest increase.
Billings trustees have aruged that Billings voters deserve to vote as well on a Lockwood split, given tax impacts. And SD2 has repeatedly questioned the willingness of Lockwood voters to pay for a high school.
Lockwood overwhelmingly passed a bond levy in 2006 to build a new middle school and update existing facilities. Since then, of eight levies put up for a vote, a building reserve levy in 2013 and a technology levy in 2012 passed. Bond levies for a sewer system failed four times before passing.
Gazette projections last spring estimated that taxes to build a new school could exceed $100 per year for 20 years on a $100,000 home. Accounting for changes in Lockwood's tax base, a $40 million school would cost about $55 per year for 20 years on a $100,000 home. That doesn't include interest on bonds.
Lockwood Superintendent Tobin Novasio previously said that he "absolutely" expects the bill to make it to Bullock's desk.
"There's no indication that he wouldn't sign it," Novasio said. "It's a bipartisan bill at this point. I can't imagine any reason why he wouldn't sign it."