Billings School District 2 eyeing $1.6 million operational levy for July 7 election

Posted at 11:03 PM, May 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-19 01:03:10-04

BILLINGS — Billings school district officials are looking to float a $1.6 million elementary school levy on the July 7 school election to help fix a $4 million shortfall in the elementary schools budget, Billings School District 2 Superintendent Greg Upham told trustees at a virtual meeting Monday.

The district wants to move forward with the levy but it's not yet on the ballot due to a conflict with Montana election law and Gov. Steve Bullock's declaration of emergency.

Upham explained that since the school election was rescheduled from an original date of May 5, the law requires the declaration of emergency must be lifted before the district can put measures to the ballot.

The operational elementary school levy is worth $1.6 million. That means the owner of a Billings home worth $200,000 would pay an additional $19.58 per year. Mail ballots for the July 7 school election will be shipped to voters on June 17.

To get the levy on the ballot, Upham said the declaration of emergency "has to be lifted in order for us or the trustees to set the official date. This is unprecedented waters because as I read (the law), it’s built primarily for a different kind of disaster: a fire or flood, the types of things that would be lifted fairly quickly," Upham said.

The law reads in part "as soon as convenient after the declaration of a state of emergency or disaster is terminated, the trustees of the district shall set a new date for the election," Upham said.

The school district looked to the Yellowstone County attorney's and elections office to try and work through the legal conflict in order to get the levy before Billings voters for a decision. Upham he's confident the issue will be smoothed over.

“I’m not concerned about it. We have some legalities that we’re going to have to work through. And we have been in conversations with the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office and they agree that we have to work with the governor’s office to have some type of stay for us to set that election officially,” Upham said.

If it were to pass, the levy's $1.6 million isn't enough to fill the expected $3 million shortfall in the operational budget for the Billings elementary schools. Upham said about $900,000 in cuts were made to the 2019-20 elementary budget, with $3 million possibly ahead next year.

“Prior to the closure, my office had authorized $4.3 million in reductions. About $900,000 in the 2019-20 school year and then an additional $3 million plus next year. Those reductions are still in place," Upham said.

Upham said the majority of the operations budget is made up of staff salaries. It saw an increase with the staffing of new Medicine Crow and Ben Steele Middle Schools along with the hiring of elementary math and reading interventionist teachers.

"We added some interventionists that I marked for reductions. That is a challenge to say the least. Those are the people that help with reading and math in our elementary schools and some of our middle schools," Upham said in a Facebook update video Monday afternoon ahead of the meeting.

The school district is expected to receive about $3 million dollars from the federal CARES act. Upham said that money can't be used to fill the shortfall. It must be spent on COVID-19-related expenses, including sanitation and learning assistance for students.