BILLINGS — The Billings School District 2's $1.6 million elementary levy vote has been proposed to be postponed until July 7 to protect election staff and volunteers from COVID-19 exposure, county Election Administrator Bret Rutherford wrote in an email to the Billings School Board Friday.
"I have decided that this would be the appropriate course of action due to the COVID-19 outbreak as the health of our staff, volunteers, and the public is of the utmost importance," Rutherford wrote.
Rutherford's main concern is the short period of time between the previously scheduled April 3 ballot certification deadline and the deadline for when ballots must be made available to voters on April 7 for late registration and April 15 for absentees.
"Under normal circumstances, after ballots are printed after the certification deadline, a large group of volunteers help to prepare the mailings at the courthouse which takes about 8 full days to complete. With the shelter in place order and the social spacing guidelines that we are required to follow, this will not be possible," Rutherford wrote.
The authority to issue a deceleration to postpone the election rests solely in the hands of Yellowstone County Schools Superintendent Sherry Long, and would not be released until Friday, Rutherford told Q2 over the phone Monday.
Rutherford said he's had discussion with Long about postponing the school election for a few days.
“I’ll support it. I broached the subject with her. She doesn’t run the elections, so we’ve been talking for a couple days now," Rutherford said.
Conditions of the proposed school election timeline may also change before the declaration is issued, Rutherford said.
The school election had originally been scheduled for May 5, and absentee ballots were to have been mailed out April 15.
To view the drafted new election timeline, click here.
The deadline for ballot certification, or notification to the county elections office of who and what will be on the ballot, is shorter in a school election than a federal one, Rutherford said. The period of time between school ballot certification, and ballots being mailed in a school election is 15-20 days, Rutherford said.
Rutherford compared the time lines for school elections to the upcoming primary election scheduled for June 2.
“To put this into perspective, the primary election candidates were certified almost two weeks ago. You can see the difference between the two elections and the time frames that we have to work with.” Rutherford said. “The primary election is a go for mail ballots in Yellowstone County. We got our approval letter from the Secretary of State’s office today.”
Rutherford said the primary election ballots for Yellowstone County are at the county's ballot vendor Elections Systems and Software for printing now.
The school election is the last shot for the Billings school district to float a levy, unless it wanted to wait until the Montana Legislature is in session again in 2021.
“Schools are required to run levies on school election day during even years. They can do it at any other time on an odd year when the Legislature is in session ... If the schools had canceled it on their own and said ‘hey, we don’t want to run a levy in this current climate.’ They wouldn’t even have a chance to do it later in the year. If the superintendent makes this declaration, it allows (the election date) to be moved out so they can still run a levy.”
The Billings elementary school levy would help to fill an expected $3.4 million budget shortfall in the 2020-21 school year.
The school board has proposed budget cuts to the elementary schools totaling about $4 million, including the reductions of gifted and talented programs, music, library and support staff.
School board trustees will also be on the school election ballot. If there is only one candidate who files for a seat, Rutherford said state law allows for the candidate to be declared elected by acclimation.