That is how Interim Superintendent Jack Copps describes the $17.4 million price tag to keep School District 2 students up with technology and its buildings repaired and maintained. Mail-in ballots for the bonds and mill levies are being mailed this week.
“My first thought is sticker shock, if people don’t break them apart,” Mr. Copps said of the perception voters may feel when asked to help fund the $17.4 million collective amount. “And if they don’t understand what the opportunities are. There are a lot of valid issues there.”
Before voters will be a total of seven items. At the elementary level, voters will vote on a technology levy, a building reserve levy and an operational levy. At the high school level, voters will vote on an operational levy. The bonds include one for the elementary schools and one for high schools.
“If you total up all the revenue that’s been made available, you think, oh my gosh, that’s just outrageous,” Mr. Copps continued. “Break them apart and look at them, because the federal government and the state are participating in some of them.”
Mr. Copps is referring to the most attractive feature of the bonds: The federal government will pay the interest.
“And because of our 105,000 population,” he continued, “we can generate a lot of money. At a low cost.”
Billings School District 2 trustees in February began discussing the possibility of putting the bonds and levies to the community on the spring ballot. The school board approved the move in March. Mail-in ballots were scheduled to go out April 18 and are due in to the Yellowstone County Courthouse by May 8.
With every ballot season, however, there seems to come an increased need for the taxpayers to dig deeper in their pockets to help further technology in the classrooms and fund deferred maintenance to the 30 schools, many of which are in need of upgrades.
But when is enough enough, taxpayers want to know. Two years ago, in May 2010, the district put a $1.1 million high school technology levy on the ballot, along with a $1.4 million elementary technology levy. The high school tech levy narrowly passed, but the elementary tech levy lost by hundreds of votes.
But with that windfall two years ago, the district has begun applying a $12 million bond for deferred maintenance that voters approved two years ago. The bonds are interest-free to local taxpayers.
The work on the schools began in the summer of 2011, and will continue over the summers of 2012 and 2013 from June through September. Already completed projects include, according to the District’s Web site:
• Fire alarm projects at Broadwater, Burlington, Miles Avenue and Washington schools.
• Window replacement projects at Bench, Highland, Poly Drive and Washington schools.
• Asbestos and mechanical work related to the HVAC project at Senior High School.
• A gymnasium roof replacement project at Riverside Middle School.
This time around, what is similar to 2010 is that the federal government will again subsidize the levies by paying the interest on bonds totaling $14 million. That’s one reason trustees are so adamant that voters should take advantage now and pass the levies.
“In my judgment, these are reasonable and necessary,” said trustee Pam Ellis. “My opinion is that it is more respectful to voters and students to ask for what we need on one ballot so the community is not surprised by ongoing requests.”
Ms. Ellis highlighted the practical aspects of what the result will be, if all are passed.
“The bond and levies are needed to make repairs to our buildings, to purchase computers and provide technical support to teachers so we don’t have first graders moving from Wyoming or Scobey who ask their Billings principal as one did recently, ‘Hey, where’s my iPad?’ We won’t be able to buy iPads for all students even if the levy passes, but each building kindergarten through eighth grade will receive money allocated per student for purchase and maintenance of needed computers.”
Despite the impassioned efforts of school officials, support for the bonds and levies lags in some demographic areas.
“I’ll be voting NO on the mill levies,” said one Yellowstone County taxpayer, who incidentally does not have children. “I’m already paying for stuff I didn’t want ... new baseball stadium, new library.”
But there are others without children or students in the district who advocate for active involvement in promoting education of children.
“This is a great opportunity for the community to get involved in education of our children,” said Carol Mick, an active community member and staunch proponent of the furthering of education. “Even if you do not have children in school now or never had children in school like me, it is one of the most quintessential needs a community has which is a well educated populace and these bonds and mills are just the ticket.”
One Billings voter cited the increase of students in the classrooms and the rise in bullying as being her reasons to vote no.
“Every year it seems there are more and more kids in the classrooms,” she said. “My son’s grades fall because I don’t think he gets the help he needs. Now they want more money for more gadgets and things, and I’m just not going to vote for it. What are the teachers doing then? Just passing off the teaching to the gadgets? And the bullying is out of control. I wish they would allocate funds for better handling of the bullies. Until that happens, my vote will be no on these bonds and levies.”
Both opponents mentioned above declined to give their names, because both say they know their stance is an unpopular one.
Carol Mick countered, “We need responsible and well educated adults to preserve the goodness that American was built on and continues to try and grow and improve on the livelihood of all its citizens. This is the place and time and these children are those potential adults we can empower with the focus, drive, stamina, vision and desires that will make them responsible and valued members of this and any community here, nationally and throughout the world.”
Trustee Pam Ellis offered an interesting analogy to the situation.
“As a friend has said to many, these levy and bond requests are ‘child support,’” she said. “We shouldn’t fail to pay child support because we are angry with the adults.”
By the numbers
According to Pam Ellis, Billings School District 2 can bond more than $338 million to maintain, improve and build new schools.
“Maintenance is not funded in any district by general fund dollars,” she explained, “but rather from bonds and building reserve funds. We have borrowed less than 5 percent; Bozeman has bonded about 85 percent and is currently fast-tracking construction of an elementary school for the new students that we are seeing across the state (the grandchildren of the Baby Boomers). We have 319 new students this year, more than 649 full-time equivalent students in the past three years and more than 900 full-time equivalent students in the past five years. We welcome the new students and recognize that this is a positive sign of growth and development in our community; it is also presenting a challenge to our district in terms of space and funding.
“Billings is also the strongest economy in Montana with an unemployment level below the state and national average,” Ms. Ellis continued. “Families are locating here while working in the Bakken, the expanding coal mines, etc. Most believe that this positive growth will continue and accelerate.”
If all elementary, high school and both bonds and levies pass, the estimated cost to a homeowner with a $100,000 market value home would be:
Total elementary estimated cost per month: $2.49.
Total high school estimated cost per month: 72 cents.
Total elementary and high school estimated cost per month: $3.21 or $38.52 per year.
For more information on the levies, go to http://saveyourschoolsbillings.com/ or facebook.com/VoteYesOnSd2Bondsandlevies.