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Billings schools superintendent urges support for upcoming elementary levy

Ballots heading to voters
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Posted at 9:04 PM, Jun 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-24 23:04:21-04

BILLINGS — Ahead of a mill levy vote on July 7, Billings School District 2 Superintendent Greg Upham said Wednesday defended the size of the ask, noting the district is constrained by state law.

“When a school district asks for a community to support a levy, asking is built into the system and the formula itself. It’s not asking because it has mismanaged funds. It’s asking because we are required to ask," Upham said in a Facebook live video.

The $1.6 million operational levy for the elementary schools would help pay for things like heat, lights and employees, Upham said.

If the levy passes, the owner of a Billings home worth $100,000 would pay an extra $9.76 per year on their tax bill. The owner of a $200,000 home would see an increase of $19.59 per year.

Ballots for the all-mail school election are out to voters now. They should be in the mailbox no later than July 1 to be counted.

Upham broke down the funding formula the state uses to distribute money among its schools. He said the state bases the total amount of money the district is allowed in a year off student enrollment. The district is granted 80 percent of the money of its allotment from the state and is required to ask for the other 20 percent from its voters, Upham said.

"I know that some people just get confused and think that the school district just keeps asking and asking. It’s part of our math formula, and we have to. It’s part of the local control, or skin in the game if you will. We’re very respectful of where our community is and its issues and challenges," Upham told Q2.

Billings last passed an elementary school levy in 2017. Upham thanked the community for its support of the high school mill levy for curriculum materials and career coaches in 2019.

The state generally gives out less money per student the larger a district grows, which works against Billings, Upham said. This is a term known in education circles as "decrement."

The state attaches a dollar figure to each student. If there's more than 1,000 students in the district, the state lowers the amount spent per student.

Billings public schools encompasses two separate public school districts: one for K-6th grade, and the other is 7-12th grade. Students in each district are valued at different amounts.

K-6 students are valued at $5,600 each up to 1,000 students. More than that, each student is valued at $5,400. With Billings' elementary student population at about 12,000, the district is missing out on about $2.2 million, according to Upham.

“The decrement is very detrimental to large school districts, especially school districts our size. There’s only one district in the state that’s our size. The next sized district to us is Great Falls with about 10,000 students. We’re at 17,000 (with elementary and high schools combined)," Upham said.

The school district has already cut $4.3 million from the elementary schools' budget including 40 full-time employees, reducing salaries by $2.6 million and cutting operational costs by 10 percent, Upham said. Eleven reading and math interventionists were part of the cuts, because they aren't needed to keep accreditation with the state.

Upham said he didn't want to make the cuts, because today's elementary school students need more help.

“We’re seeing a growing percentage of students struggling to be on grade level and meet benchmark proficiency, especially at the early age in elementary school. Why is that? Well, the system was designed years and years ago and students need more time. There’s less support for them in their home environments. And I’m not blaming the home, I’m not blaming the home at all. The system was designed when there were two parents and one probably stayed home and supported. That’s not the case anymore. People are working two or three jobs to survive. There’s a lot of challenges out there for families that weren’t there before and there’s a lot of challenges for students," Upham said.

The larger conversation Upham hoped to open is changing the way larger school districts in Montana are funded.

“We need to modernize it. We need to increase the support and the time (of instruction) for students who aren’t on benchmark. I’m not saying every student is in that situation. What I am saying is we’re seeing an increase in the number of them. They need more help. They need more time. The home is different, people are working to survive," Upham said.

There are other aspects of a typical school day that aren't required to be in place in order to receive state accreditation, but Upham said the school can't work without them. School resource police officers, hired on from the Billings Police Department, costing the district over half a million dollars a year, Upham said.

"Could we go without them? No,” Upham said.

Other positions in this category include school nurses, social workers, and math/reading interventionalists mentioned earlier.

Upham said those positions are necessary, "because we’re trying to support our students socially and emotionally and maintain the safety. But my argument to the budget is, (the extra resources were) never intended when the system was designed initially.”

Moving forward, Upham doesn't want to place blame on anyone or any institution. He sees the state funding formula for large districts as something that will take many hands to fix.

“I’m tired of the finger-pointing. I’m tired of the animosity of pointing the finger at legislators for this, or government or whatever. We have a situation on our hands that’s going to require all of us to work together and solve. It’s not anyone's fault," Upham said.