A $40 million tax raise passed by legislators this spring is coming home to roost in local school districts.
In Billings, taxes automatically generated by the state's school funding formula could spike 7.39 mills in the elementary district and 3.9 mills in the high school district, according to School District 2 estimates shared at Monday night's school board meeting.
In March, legislators sliced a pair of payments from schools that gives districts less money to help meet their state-required minimum budgets. Since the minimum budgets don't change, local taxpayers have to make up for the lost funding.
The payments are replaced through a different fund eventually, but local taxpayers across the state will pick up a $40 million tab over the next two years.
Legislators didn't talk about the increase in taxes when they approved the funding shift.
School District 2's estimates will likely drop a bit when the state determines a new taxable value later this year after property reappraisals. Billings' taxable value typically increases.
The estimates don't factor in an elementary levy that passed last week, which increases mills for the district's over-BASE budget — voted increases in addition to minimum budgets.
"This next piece is... interesting, I guess," said district chief financial officer Mike Arnold, pausing mid-sentence. "It was just a shell game, playing with dollars."
Maintaining districts' budget authority — how they determine their minimum budgets — was the priority in the plan, he said.
But will higher taxes as a trade off backfire?
"So next year, when we're hoping to maybe, finally, pass a high school levy, there will be a huge tax increase?" said trustee Joe Raffiani.
The tax increase isn't guaranteed with changing property values, but is highly likely.
Mills should go down for the 2019-20 school year and beyond as replacement funding increases. According to the new budget, the cut funding should be completely replaced in four years. But beyond the new two-year budget, no plans are guaranteed.
Several trustees were concerned that schools could end up getting blamed for the increase, despite having no control over it.
"It's not even a shell game," said trustee Mike Leo. "In this case, it's instead of money coming from the state, it's coming from local taxpayers. And without a vote."
"How do we get that message out, that we didn't do that to them?" said trustee Janna Hafer. "The public needs to know that."
Two new trustees and one returnee were sworn in Monday.
Russ Hall replaced Suzie Layton, who chose not to run for re-election, representing outlying elementary districts other than Lockwood whose students attend SD2 high schools. And Janna Hafer was reelected representing the Billings Heights and North Park. She and Hall were unopposed.