From new roofs to new windows and vital areas in between, Billings Public Schools is gearing up to ask voters for money to cover massive deferred maintenance costs at several of its schools, to the tune of $12 million in the form of two separate bonds.
But this year’s request is different. The bonds available are the result of the Federal Stimulus Act, whereby the government pays all of the interest on borrowed funds, saving taxpayers over $9 million over 15 years.
In addition, the state of Montana is slated to contribute more than $4 million over the next 15 years.
“This is an amazingly good deal for our community and our taxpayers because of the state and federal subsidies that come with these bonds,” said school board member Joel Guthals. “The money that will come from the bonds to fund some very critically needed deferred maintenance programs for our schools that we can’t afford to make from our operational funds. The operational funds don’t provide us with enough money to pay for large deferred maintenance projects.”
“These bonds are a one-time opportunity to do critical maintenance projects at a substantial discount,” Barbara Bryan, school board chairman, added. “The significant cost savings to local taxpayers made possible under the federal stimulus act will go to other school districts in Montana if we don’t take advantage of them.”
Maintenance and repair needs for all three of Billings’ public high schools would be addressed, as would those at nearly half of the elementary schools and two middle schools if both measures pass. The district cites obsolete, outdated and underperforming roofs, windows, boilers and fire alarm systems that need to be repaired or replaced as needed to ultimately keep operational costs at a minimum.
A mail-in ballot is headed to the voting public beginning Aug. 19 and is due to the Yellowstone County Election office by Sept. 7.
Ms. Bryan explained that bonds are the funding mechanism provided to the school district to fund capital projects.
“The general fund, from which we pay most operating expenses, is not intended to cover these costs,” she said. “Billings Public Schools has a bonding capacity of more than $300 million. We are using $0 of that capacity. What that says is we are not investing in our school buildings; we are not taking care of what we have, what the voters have already given us. The school board recognizes this, and is working to get back on the right track. The current bonds are a start.”
The elementary district bond is seeking $4,420,000 million, while the high school district bond is asking for $7,580,000. Because Billings Public Schools consists of two school districts – an elementary district and a high school district – registered voters who live in both districts will receive two ballots. To the average homeowner of a $200,000 home, it would be a bump of $8.66 per year, or about 72 cents per month.
The school district has $123 million in deferred maintenance, according to Ms. Bryan. These bonds will take care of 10 percent of the backlog.
“The public has stated very clearly in recent years that it wants the school district to take care of what it has – our existing schools,” Ms. Bryan stated. “With this bond proposal, the school board is taking its direction from the community – putting bond dollars towards critical projects in existing school buildings. Yes votes on these bonds will strengthen the board’s will to move forward with efforts to bring all our existing school buildings up to 21st century standards.”
The board estimates a savings of $100,000 each year in operational expenses after these projects are completed.
Passage of the bonds would replace windows, roofs, fire alarm systems and a boiler at Senior High School. In addition, Skyview’s roof could benefit from the passage of the high school bond if insurance doesn’t cover the entire bill.
As for windows, single-pane windows that are 40-70 years old will be replaced with energy-efficient windows. New roofs will cut down on the ongoing cost of repairing leaks, which in turn results in eliminating the literal trickle-down effect of replacing damaged furniture and electronic equipment.
Fire alarms in some schools, as in the case of Broadwater, Burlington and Miles Avenue elementary schools, are as old as the building, dating back as far as 1910 in the case of Broadwater. They have been updated over the years but at their core, retain antiquate technology, according to the district.
The issue of the boiler pertains to Senior High School. The high school bond would replace Senior’s original boiler from 1939 with a more energy-efficient model, resulting in a savings of about $10,000 the first year.
Finally, there is the issue of the roof over Skyview High School, damaged in June’s Father’s Day tornado. Insurance will likely cover the repair or replacement of that roof, and in that case, the bond dollars saved from that expense would be allocated toward Daylis Stadium, whose roof still leaks after being repaired and patched a number of times.
“Think of your own home,” Ms. Bryan offered. “If you don’t take care of it, you usually end up with more costly problems down the road. It is less costly to take care of problems when they come up rather than waiting until they are big problems.”
Still, there are voters out there who have become skeptical over the years as to where the money really goes, and why, year after year, school officials ask for more and more money.
Billings resident Robert Martin said he will likely vote no when he receives his ballot in the mail next week.
“Every year I hear that students do not have everything they need to be successful in the classroom, such as books,” he said. “That sounds borderline corrupt in my opinion so I would vote no because that money isn’t being spent where it should be.”
But Mr. Guthals assured that the $100,000 savings in operational costs by completion of the bond-related projects would in fact ultimately trickle down to the students and teachers.
“In turn, it provides $100,000 of resources for the school district to use for such things as books and nurses and other necessary expenses that we are having so much trouble paying for,” he said.
“If the bonds don’t pass, the identified bond projects either will not get done, or the school district will have to run bonds in the future to fund them,” Ms. Bryan concluded.
“In the latter case, the bonds will not have the financial advantages of the current bonds (with the unique help this year of the federal government and the state), so local taxpayers will pay significantly more for the same work.”