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It's Election Day and ballots in the all-mail election are due to the Yellowstone County Courthouse by 8 p.m.

Billings parents, School District 2 officials and business leaders will be closely watching election returns. On the ballot are two mill levies to hire more teachers and improve technology at the elementary and middle school level. 

By Monday evening, 37,802 ballots had been returned, said Susan Patton in the county elections office. She predicted a near-record return after all votes are tallied Tuesday night.

Passing the levies is the first step in SD2's ambitious facilities master plan. If the levies fail, the SD2 board likely will have to go back to planning with significantly fewer options.

Also on the ballot for voters living on the far West End of Billings is the school board trustee race for Zone 7. Incumbent Connie Wardell is running against challenger Kevin Toohill. 

Toohill, a parent with children in the district, started his own mapping company in Billings and studied community planning in college. He has a master's degree in planning.

Wardell, finishing her first term, has a property management company in town and has been an active -- and sometimes combative -- member of the board. She was an early proponent of the master facilities plan and worked hard to bring awareness to state school funding inequities.

Crafting the master facilities planning began last summer. Through the process, the district now has detailed reports on each of its school buildings and a demographic study showing where the district is likely to grow over the next decade.

The plan also shows a massive shortage of classroom space in the district. The space shortage, along with rapid student growth, has led to overcrowded classrooms across the district. 

SD2 has roughly 800 more students in its schools than what state law allows, according to the facilities plan conducted by national design firm DLR Group and local firm O2 Architects.

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 in students, the number will rise to 109 classrooms this fall.

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

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

As part of the plan, the district also plans to move sixth graders, currently at the elementary schools, to middle school, reconfiguring SD2 as a K-5, 6-8, 9-12 school district. 

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.