Six years ago, Billings voters entrusted their public school leaders with $122 million in bonding authority to build two new middle schools, renovate two 100-year-old elementary schools and do major maintenance at the district's 20 other elementary and four middle schools.
With careful planning and advice from local construction experts, the district stayed on budget and opened the new middle schools, alleviating the overcrowding that was straining most elementary schools. The new buildings allowed all sixth-graders to become middle schoolers.
Good stewardship will permit Billings Public Schools to complete dozens of necessary maintenance projects in K-8 schools over the next year using the last $8.4 million in bonding authority from the vote in 2013.
There are no frivolous expenditures planned. Plans include providing equity for all Billings students. For example, tech ed classrooms at the four older middle schools will be updated to match the learning opportunities at the new schools. Replacing broken sidewalks is a safety imperative. Sealing playgrounds and parking lots extends the useful life of those surfaces.
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Billings voters last approved an increase in tax support for our elementary and middle schools six years ago. In May 2013, voters supported an operating levy that has been used to hire more teachers, substantially eliminating overcrowded K-6 classrooms, which had numbered nearly 100 and threatened the district's state accreditation. In the fall of 2013, voters approved the bond issue.
Next May, district leaders plan to ask voters to approve the first K-8 operating levy increase in six years. Operating expenses have started outstripping operating revenues.
As voters consider a new request for school funds, they should know how their money has been spent. The school district has been transparent with bond funds that must be used on facilities.
It must be completely transparent on operating costs. At Monday's board of trustees meeting, Superintendent Greg Upham said staff have already been preparing for staffing cuts because the levy state law allows Billings voters to approve in May won't be enough to close the gap between expenses and revenue for next school year.