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During the first week of April our community hosted the first job fair ever held in Yellowstone County aimed specifically at graduating seniors from our local high schools. Well over 1,000 high school seniors from at least seven high schools in the county attended.

The interest by employers was overwhelming. We had to turn away interested businesses because of demand. In a follow-up meeting this week, we learned that employers have filled many vacancies already, and are still working through many more resumes and interviews with our high school seniors. What a message about the workforce needs of our economy!

I think School District 2’s new superintendent is right: Offering curriculum to prepare seniors to have career oriented skills is as important as college preparedness. Our district sees roughly half of our graduates matriculate directly into two- or four-year post-secondary education, while the other half graduate immediately looking for work and career opportunities.

Billings is unique, with an economy more cyclical communities envy. According to the University of Montana Business Bureau, our economy is one of the most diverse in the state of Montana, and the top employers and industry segments rely on a steady pipeline of skilled applicants to keep that economy humming. Healthy workforces like ours need to develop diverse skill sets, reflecting the needs of the local employers.

Thanks for this goes to our high schools and to the support of employer-based advisory groups, like School District 2’s Career and Technical Education Advisory Board. They have helped develop a burgeoning portfolio of highly demanded trade-skill focused curriculum at the Career Center and on campus at our three other high schools. These advisory boards are investing time, financial resources and vision because they know we need to adapt and educate in a modern way to develop the skills to meet modern workplace demands.

SD2 resources are currently tight when it comes to budgetary flexibility. In recent decades, we have not made new investments in the modern equipment and learning resources in our high schools which our students need to compete in this era.

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State education funding is a tightly controlled reality, and every district in the state gets 80% of its budget guaranteed by the state to provide equity on a per student basis. By design, the other 20% of that budget is allowed to be invested in by the local community, through mill levies. In recent decades, our community has invested considerably in our elementary and middle schools. Our school board takes seriously its responsibility of equipping our schools with the most resources allowed by state law, and this spring they are asking for a modest financial contribution aimed directly at the high schools. With tight budgets, decisions are made responsibly by district leadership and the reality is we cannot afford to invest in every opportunity to help our students succeed.

As an example, with our current funding structure, some Advanced Placement courses are not available within our district, while many of our Class AA peer schools offer every AP course. Instructional materials get dated when additional investments don’t get made. Our district’s budget for text and licensing renewal is approximately $60,000 annually. Our AA peers around the state have voted ‘yes’ to increase their contribution when they can, and the result is some budgets exceed $200,000 and more annually. That’s a big difference, one we have the opportunity to address with this mill levy request.

Visit SD2milllevy.org to review the details of the need and the thoughtful proposal for the use of these new funds. You will see that funds will be allocated in a strategic way to modernize our students’ learning materials, update classroom equipment and will help equip our campuses with more opportunities to develop workplace skills and competencies. Whether our sons or daughters are heading to university or looking for a job after graduation, we need to be a community that gives them the best chance for success.

I am behind this effort because I believe that the new leadership in place within the school district coupled with this community’s commitment and pride to be a highly skilled economy sees this investment as necessary to keep Billings the great city it is. Join me in voting for the SD2 high school mill levy this spring.

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Todd Buchanan, a Billings businessman and father of two SD2 students, served seven years on the Montana Board of Regents and organized the recent JobFair for area high school students.

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