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As Election Day draws near, supporters of the two School District 2 mill levies on the ballot are cautiously optimistic.

It's an all-mail-in-ballot election, and those ballots must be returned to the Yellowstone County elections office by 8 p.m. on Tuesday.  

By Friday afternoon, the elections office had received more than 33,500 returned ballots, the second-highest return at this point for a school mail-in election, said Susan Patton in the county elections office.  

SD2 is seeking a $1 million mill levy to hire new teachers and a $1.2 million tech levy to improve technology in elementary and middle school classrooms. As stated on the ballot, the two levies would cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $37 a year in additional taxes.

It's a high-stakes campaign for the district. SD2 leaders were reprimanded last summer by the state for allowing classrooms to get too crowded. They were told they needed to address the problem or risk sanctions and possibly a loss of accreditation. 

It was that moment that really caught the attention of the Billings business community.

"For us, we understand as an economic priority that people will move to an area with a successful K-12 program," said John Brewer, president of the Billings Chamber of Commerce.

Doctors being recruited by the hospitals, professionals being courted by the energy companies — and their families — quickly learn of Billings' reputation of not regularly passing mill levies and of its rapidly aging schools, Brewer said.

"They take note," he said. And some choose not to relocate to Billings. 

That ultimately takes a toll on the industries in the region, which then affects the local economy. 

"It's just important, as a well-rounded community, that we don't lose out," Brewer said.

He pointed to Bozeman, Butte, Missoula and Helena. Those towns are similar in what they're able to offer professionals and businesses looking to make the move to Montana. 

"Those communities are consistently passing mill levies as required by the state," he said. 

Until Billings can do it, the area risks losing its economic viability, he said.  

School officials are hopeful that passing the two mill levies will lead to some momentum, shifting community support back to the school district. That support will be vital to the district's ambitious plans over the next three years.

Passing the two levies is the first step in the district's plan to reduce the size of its crowded classrooms and update its older and failing school buildings.

In the fall, the district hopes to run a multimillion-dollar bond to build two new middle schools and significantly overhaul McKinley and Broadwater, SD2's two oldest elementary schools.

Enrollment in the district has steadily climbed over the past three years and is expected to increase again this fall. Currently, 16,000 students attend SD2 schools, up nearly 600 from just three years ago.

Right now, 93 classrooms at the elementary school level have a higher student-teacher ratio than the state allows. Without a change and with the expected increase, the number will rise to 109 classrooms this fall.

The general-fund levy, if it passes, will allow the district to reduce the high student-teacher ratios, bringing down the number of crowded classrooms in the elementary schools to 54.

The campaign for the levies has been active for nearly two months. SD2 Superintendent Terry Bouck has visited dozens of service clubs, community groups, churches and neighborhood gatherings to talk about the district's needs. 

Volunteers have been calling voters, canvassing neighborhoods and putting signs in yards. 

Claire Kenamore, a pediatrician at Billings Clinic and a parent in the district, signed up last week to make calls and ended up talking on the phone to a 99-year-old woman ready to vote.

"She was very spry," Kenamore said. "Sharp as a tack."

Kenamore reminded the woman that ballots were due soon. The woman thought about it and remembered that she'd placed her ballot in a library book. The book was still at home.

"I waited on the phone and chatted with her while she filled out her ballot," Kenamore said. "She told me, 'Honey, I always support our kids.'"

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.