SD2 Mill Levy

Superintendent of Billings Public Schools Greg Upham speaks during the campaign kickoff for a high school operational levy at the chapel on the St. John's campus in Billings on April 10, 2019.

As Billings school trustees and administrators wait for the results of an elementary budget review examining a structural shortfall, Superintendent Greg Upham said Monday that cuts are likely no matter what new revenue comes in. 

The district has already enacted a hiring freeze for some positions, though it is hiring for jobs needed to meet accreditation standards, such as student-teacher ratios. 

There's money to pay for this year's K-8 budget, but a structural shortfall emerged as administrators were preparing finances for this school year. Consistent revenue streams from state and federal sources will fall $4.5 million short of expenses in the elementary general fund, and the one-time money that the district will use to patch the hole may not be sustainable. 

A review found that the trend dates back three years, and that one-time only money was used to patch holes but wasn't explained clearly in the budget

Upham has said that the district needs to look at bringing in new revenue, like running a levy in May, but that "everything is on the table."

At Monday's school board meeting, trustee Joe Raffiani asked if cuts would be needed even if the rosiest of revenue projections panned out. 

"There will be additional cuts past that as well," Upham said. 

The district has hired a former Kalispell school financial officer to conduct a budget review that will help find where a "ceiling" is on the shortfall, to give administrators a better idea of what budget targets they need to hit. 

Upham initially said that report was expected at the end of August, but he said Monday that the district is hoping it is finished this week after the reviewer requested more information. 

Most of the elementary budget pays for salaries and benefits, and most employees are tied to accreditation standards that are set by the state, Upham said. 

Meeting those standards was part of the push behind 2013's $122 million bond that paid for extensive elementary remodels and two new middle schools. State officials had threatened the district's accreditation because it wasn't meeting class-size standards. 

However, those new middle schools and additional hires have been a major contributor to rising costs and the shortfall, Upham said, but he's maintained that the new schools were a necessary move that has improved education in the district. 

With cuts, "the challenge in all this will come to the prioritization of programming," he said. "We have to be careful and cautious that we don't cut too deep too quickly."

Elementary principals have been asked to review their building operational budgets to see what a 10% reduction in cost would look like, he said, emphasizing that a budget solution will be a multi-year process. 

Raffiani emphasized the importance of transparency in planning and implementing any cuts. 

"I won't be the Great Oz behind the green curtain," Upham said.  

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