The mill levy is an amount paid as a part of property taxes that will allow Billings Public School to purchase new textbooks and instructional materials for high schools, as well as hire four additional career counselors to help students develop career pathways.
The question that will be on the ballot this spring is a proposed levy of 3.72 mills, which equals $5.02 per year for every $100,000 of assessed home value. The average home in Billings is worth about $236,000 – meaning that the average taxpayer will see an increase of about $11.85 per year – less than $1 per month to give our high schoolers the tools and textbooks that they need to learn and prepare for the workforce.
Students in Billings high schools are learning from materials that are, in some cases, more than 15-20 years old. To ensure a high-quality education for our students that prepares them for college and career options, we need to invest in updated tools and textbooks. In addition, with an average of one career counselor per 400 students, many high schoolers don’t have access to the resources they need to explore their post-secondary options.
A high school mill levy to fund instructional resources hasn’t passed since 2007. Over the last 12 years, we have focused resources on high-priority items such as financial stability, school safety, and basic facility maintenance. Instructional resources have been stretched as far as they can be, but our high schools can’t keep taping books together and still deliver a high-quality education.
Billings hasn’t voted for any new high school money since 2010. The funding formula for Montana schools is based on a 20 percent contribution from local voters, meaning without local levies, our high schools lack critical resources, such as textbooks and learning materials. Billings voters have invested in our elementary schools, creating high-quality learning environments. It’s time to do the same for our high schools.
The high school mill levy will be used to replace and upgrade textbooks and learning tools at Billings Senior, Skyview, West, and the Career Center. In addition, a portion of the funds will be dedicated to supporting students and families in navigating career pathways for their high schoolers by adding four new and education-specific career counselors.
Our high schools only have $60,000 for text books and learning materials for the entire district annually! Compare that to more than $250,000 in other Class AA schools in Montana. In fact, because of strong public support on elementary levies, we have been able to invest, on average, $500,000 per year in K-8 instructional materials here in Billings.
Billings voters last enacted an operational mill levy for the high schools in 2007. In 2010, a high school tech fund levy passed – those funds were used to upgrade computers, laptops, and IT infrastructure. Licenses for digital textbooks and similar online learning platforms are not a part of the tech fund levy.
Truthfully, there isn’t a levy every year. Before the school district is allowed to go out for a levy or bond, the school board trustees carefully scrutinize the budget and make sure it is absolutely necessary to ask taxpayers for additional resources.
In 2007, voters passed a high school operational levy and in 2010, the high school tech levy passed. That means it has been 12 years since a high school operational levy was passed, and nine years since we put any new money into our high schools.
Since 2010, a high school mill levy has only been on the ballot in 2012, 2016, and 2017 – none of which passed. Billings Public Schools didn’t put any levies or bonds on the ballot at all in 2009, 2011, 2014, 2015, or 2018. Check out the timeline of educational funding measures in Billings here. This year, 2019, the school district is focusing only on high school needs and not asking for any new elementary funding.
Keep in mind also that Montana school funding formulas are based on a cost-sharing approach – the state funds 80 percent of educational needs from the General Fund. The remaining 20 percent is expected to come from local school districts in the form of mill levies and bonds.
For more than a decade, instructional resources, like textbooks and classroom materials, have been placed on the back burner to prioritize for critical needs, such as student safety and building maintenance. With growing concerns over active shooters and school safety, SD2 invested in necessary upgrades to make our buildings secure. At the same time, those buildings are aging – Skyview is now more than 30 years old. That means maintenance costs go up. We know that parents and taxpayers want children to be in a safe and healthy learning environment, so resources were dedicated to those priorities. High school students were asked to make do with worn-out textbooks and tools, but we have stretched those resources as far as we possibly can.
Current high school textbooks are in bad shape – they are outdated and falling apart to the point of non-use. Many textbooks have been rebound multiple times to the point where there is no more paper left to bind them again. Some books are just duct-taped together.
E-textbooks face a similar situation – book subscriptions purchased years ago have expired and need to be updated for new technology platforms. Because the software is no longer supported by the publisher, materials can’t be upgraded or renewed.
To give some specific examples, here are the dates of publication of books being used in our core high school subjects:
In addition, the current condition of our high school texts and tools is limiting educational opportunity for students. Billings Public Schools hasn’t been able to offer AP Chemistry to students, because our basic learning materials are so outdated that they don’t meet the standards for Advanced Placement classes nor does our equipment allow for the lab work needed in the AP course.
Finally, quality curricula – in the form of texts and tools – is fundamental to consistency. When books and materials are unusable or outdated, there is no system to ensure a consistent approach to teaching and learning. Updating and replenishing our instructional materials, and then using those materials faithfully, will allow more transparency in education and allow us to focus on student achievement.
If the mill levy passes, the district will dedicate the first five years to catching up on the backlog of texts and tools. First up will be the core sciences, world history and geometry. Next will be upper level elective sciences, like geology, as well as some of the foreign languages, math and history texts. As the district catches up, all instructional materials will be put on a regular rotation schedule to ensure that books and materials are kept current.
Our goal is to strike a balance between print texts and digital textbooks and tools. Using e-books isn’t a cost-savings, so the issue is really about how students learn best. Research shows that a hybrid model of print and digital resources result in the best outcomes for students. A mill levy that provides a steady commitment to investing in learning tools allows Billings high schools to adhere to best practices and improve academic achievement.
The school district does have reserve funds. Montana law allows school districts to hold no more than 10 percent of their annual budget in reserve. Currently, the Billings high school reserve fund is about $3.9 million, or 9.4 percent of the total high school budget. Those reserves are restricted to emergency, one-time needs – a natural disaster or building collapse, for example. In addition, by having a strong reserve fund, Billings Public Schools improves its credit rating – a direct benefit to taxpayers in the form of lower interest rates. Because BPS has a strong reserve, taxpayers saved $18 million on the recent bonds for the two middle schools.
In addition, if there are some funds remaining at the end of a fiscal year – perhaps from staff vacancies or one-time savings – some of those funds can be held in a type of savings account, known as a multi-district account. In recent years, the school board trustees have used those funds for school safety and school maintenance. Those are important priorities, and truthfully, have been the focus in recent years, at the expense of learning materials. Keeping kids safe, dry and warm is a basic expectation – so if we needed to tape books together for a time, so be it.
Unfortunately, the time has come where the condition of learning materials in high schools is beyond repair and duct tape. We have worked hard to put our fiscal house in order, prioritizing those fundamental needs of stability, safety, and security first. With this levy, we are asking Billings voters if they are willing to create a steady, consistent source of funding to update high school texts and tools, as well as maintain quality over time.
Career counselors help students and families prepare for life after high school. For some students, that means planning for college – including entrance exams, applications, searching for scholarships, navigating financial aid packages, and working on dual credit courses during high school. For other students, post-secondary options include internships, apprenticeships, professional certifications, trade schools, distance learning, or directly entering the workforce. One guidance counselor to help 400 students and families navigate those pathways just isn’t enough.
Yes. Cohort teachers – for example, all world history teachers – will evaluate their textbook options and make a recommendation to the school board. That recommendation is put out for a 30-day public review, in which the school board welcomes parent and community feedback. After the school board hears from the public and makes its decision, all teachers are required to use the approved materials.
School elections will be held on May 7, 2019. Ballots will be mailed out on April 19, 2019. For Billings, there are three school board members and the high school mill levy on the ballot. More information, including deadlines to register to vote, is available here.
Members of the public are encouraged to attend school board meetings to learn more. Voters can also reach out to their school board member and ask questions about the mill levy. Contact information is available here.
You can also explore current year and historical budgets for Billings Public Schools here.