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Billings public schools hopeful $1.5 million levy will bolster student career pathways

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Posted at 5:45 PM, Mar 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-16 19:45:52-04

BILLINGS — In an effort to continue to provide career opportunities for students right out of high school, school administrators in Billings are asking the voters to approve a levy that would bring in an additional $1.5 million to the district, but it might be an uphill battle to get the voters on board.

“Gas prices are what they are. Inflation is what it is. This is a tough time to ask. We do respectfully realize that. We just have this momentum going with career initiatives and it is working really well," said Billings School District 2 Superintendent Greg Upham on Wednesday.

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Some Billings voters say they're feeling levy fatigue. Billings passed a $970,000 high school mill levy in 2019. It helped pay for new books and added four career coaches to help connect high school students with jobs in the medical and construction fields.

Then last year voters approved a public safety mill levy for the city worth $7.1 million, and then approved a levy worth $1.6 million for the elementary schools in the previous year.

Now another request, one that will appear on the May 3 ballot. If the levy passes, the owner of a Billings home worth $100,000 would see an increase of $6.65 on their annual property tax bill, while the owner of a home worth $200,000 would pay an additional $13.91 annually.

"I'm tired of being asked for money. My child asks me for money all of the time. They need money. The police need money. Everybody needs money, but I need some of this money too," said Melissa Harrell, a Billings mother of a 15-year-old student.

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Mlissa Harrell, a Billings mother, speaks with MTN News on Wednesday about the Billings high school levy.

Harrell said she'll be voting no come May.

But Upham said there's a good reason the district is asking voters to approve levies year after year. It boils down to the state's funding formula for schools. Each year, the state gives schools 80 percent of their budget primarily based on student enrollment, then the local voters have the power to give the school districts the remaining 20 percent.

“Why don’t you live within your means? This is within our means. This is how we’re budgeted. This is what we’re eligible for," Upham said. "I think the property tax fatigue is real. I’m a property owner. I get it. It’s part of what we have to do. We’re all fatigued with this. We ask our legislators to take a look at this and see what type of tax structures are available and see what kind of changes can be made, but I agree. I think there’s tax fatigue, especially on the property owner."

Much of the money from this year's levy would support the district's career outreach program.

In the two years that the career coaches have been in place, Upham said they've made great strides. Now there are hundreds of Billings students interested in going to work during a portion of their senior year. And since the career coaches have been in place, senior students have found jobs in the places they had trained for.

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Billings high school students practice welding at RDO Equipment Co. in 2022 as part of the Billings Public Schools career pathways.

“There are communities that pass (levies) every year. We have to remember that we’re in competition. Our students have to compete with students from those communities too. So we want to ensure that we have the best opportunities for our students here as they compete at the university level, at the college level, at the employment level," Upham said.

Billings is not out of the ordinary in running a levy this year. School levies are also on the ballots in Helena, Missoula, Bozeman and Butte. Upham said if the levy fails, there will be no cuts made to any staff positions, the district will just have less money to operate the high schools with.

For a deep dive into how the state funds its public schools, view a document prepared by the state Office of Public Instruction by clicking here.

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