Now more than ever, our public schools are the heart of our community. Schools connect us, inspire us, keep our kids safe and serve as a key foundation of our local economy.

Do Our Students Deserve More Than 80%?

When it comes to mill levies, this is a relevant question. We have a duty to make wise, local decisions to ensure our schools run efficiently and to do our part to make the state-required local contribution to funding. The system is stacked against our kids.

The state’s funding formula says that 80% of a district’s budget comes from the state, while the remaining 20% comes from local mill levies. Fully funding our schools means regularly passing levies. Failing to pass them leaves funding on the table and puts us at a competitive disadvantage versus other communities. It hurts our students and our community.

Billings Public Schools (BPS) and Our Community

BPS by the Numbers

BPS is by far the biggest school district in Montana. We have nearly twice as many students than the next largest district in Great Falls.

  • Approximately 16,800 students total
  • Approximately 5,550 high school students
  • Three high schools, six middle schools, 22 elementary schools, and a career center

BPS and the Economy

Billings Public Schools is among the largest employers in Yellowstone County. Much of the money the district spends goes back into the local economy.

  • Approximately 3,000 W-2 employees
  • BPS spent more than $225 million in 2021
  • Contracts with more than 80 vendors and most are local businesses

BPS and the Labor Market

Competitive public schools improve the economy across the board by attracting new residents and providing a pipeline for qualified job candidates.

  • The best economic stimulus package is a high school diploma
  • K-12 education drives economic prosperity for students and our community
  • Local economies flourish when more skilled and productive workers are available

What Fully Funded Looks Like

When our schools are fully funded, we can continue to support non-accredited needs like career coaches, nurses and school resource officers. This creates more opportunities for students and our community.

The last high school mill levy helped us fund the Career and Technical Education (CTE) program, which establishes strategic partnerships with local businesses to make life-changing opportunities available to students.

What does full funding look like? The district is able to prepare students for careers, and it benefits our economy, especially during tight labor markets like we have now. Competitive schools help our community.

Get Involved

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SEND A COMMENT

Let us know your thoughts and ideas about the upcoming high school mill levy.

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WRITE THE COMMUNITY

Write a letter to the editor of the Billings Gazette about about the high school mill levy.

 

 

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STUDY SCHOOL FUNDING

Read how schools are funded in “Understanding MT School Finance and School District Budgets.”

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SHARE ON SOCIAL

The BPS Facebook page features additional news on the high school mill levy.

Questions You’ve Asked

What is the cost of the high school mill levy for property owners?

Voters will be asked on May 3 to vote on a $1.5 million high school levy. By law, state ballots list the tax costs for $100,000 and $200,000 tax-assessed homes. The tax costs for those figures, which must appear on the ballot, are $.58 and $1.16 each month, respectively. We recognize that many homes in Billings fall outside the price range mandated by state balloting rules. You can calculate your tax increase per month by adding $.58 for each $100,000 of tax-assessed value. For example, the high school levy would increase taxes on a $300,000 tax-assessed home by $1.74 per month and a $400,000 home by $2.32 per month.

How will funds from this mill levy be used?

The funds from the mill levy will be used to support high school district operations and to continue to invest in and enhance the “career ready” initiatives that were implemented with the successful passing of the 2019 high school levy. Billings Public Schools established a systematic framework to introduce and place students in career and employment opportunities based on their individual interests.

The 2019 levy has funded the work of the career coaches at our three high schools and the Career Center. It has also allowed for intentional development of partnerships with local businesses and educational institutions to establish student internship, apprenticeship employment, and educational opportunities. This work has provided our students with experiences and avenues leading to rewarding and profitable careers, in addition to helping fill employment gaps that our businesses are encountering.

This new levy will continue to support and provide the means to improve, expand, and accelerate the existing framework, ultimately allowing more students to be exposed to career choices and guiding them to opportunities in their areas of interest.

Didn’t we just pass a mill levy?

The last high school mill levy was passed three years ago in May 2019 to support operations and curriculum improvements as well as to add four career coaches for the Career and Technical Education (CTE) program. In the four years since that levy was passed, costs have increased significantly and, with the trend in inflation, we don’t expect those numbers to improve in the short term. We made a valuable investment in our high schools three years ago and it’s time to renew that commitment to keep our high schools competitive.

The last elementary school levy for the district was passed in 2020. Last November, voters passed a safety levy that was unrelated to schools in order to fund police and fire departments, as well as legal and health services throughout the city. These are two separate levies and have no impact on one another’s budgets.

How does the current state funding formula for education hurt BPS?

The funding formula has a few major structural flaws. First, every district gets the exact same amount of base funding – a lump sum amount that is the same whether the district has one school or 31 schools. Second, due to the decrement, every district gets a per-student amount that incrementally declines as the number of students increases – meaning that on average larger districts receive less for each student than smaller districts. It is a fundamental issue of equity – no student in Montana should be worth less than another. Each one of our students in Billings Public Schools deserves to be fully funded in their public school education, and as the state has set up the funding formula, Billings is underfunded without passing a levy.

If there really is a problem with the state funding formula, why aren’t other AA schools facing the same funding issues?

They absolutely are. AA communities that pass mill levies on an annual basis ensure their schools are fully funded, which means they’re able to spend the full amount the state authorizes. This year, Helena and Missoula have both elementary and high school mill levies on the ballot. Bozeman has a mill levy, a building reserve and a technology levy on the ballot this year. Butte has an elementary mill levy on this year’s ballot. These communities regularly pass school mill levies to ensure they don’t leave money on the table. Every year that Billings fails to pass a school mill levy can put us at a competitive disadvantage versus these communities.

Didn’t the district get a bunch of COVID money from the federal government?

Yes, Billings Public Schools is eligible to receive nearly $54 million in COVID relief money, specifically to cover expenses related to the coronavirus response. Through fiscal year 2021, the district has spent nearly $25 million of available federal COVID funds. The remainder of these funds must be spent by September 30, 2024.

Funds provided through COVID relief can only be used for things directly related to COVID-19, so these one-time funds can’t be directed to the operating budget or ongoing expenses. Specifically, BPS has used these funds for costs related to 2021 remote learning, additional elementary academic interventionists, additional FTE to reduce middle school high school class sizes, heightened cleaning and sanitation, as well as summer learning for all grades. In addition, some funds were directed toward technology that was lent out to students participating in distance learning and may need to be repaired or replaced. The district will continue to use these funds to mitigate health or educational needs caused by COVID-19.

The district just wants more money, like always. Why can’t the district just live within its means?

Like any business, Billings’ schools face rising costs over time. Labor and operational costs go up, but the Montana school funding formula isn’t set to reflect those costs. School funds provided by the state are indexed to a complicated formula that doesn’t reflect the current Consumer Price Index or labor costs. It is an outdated and overly bureaucratic approach that just doesn’t make sense.

Even though the state funding formula is badly broken, Billings Public Schools is doing its part to keep expenses down and spend responsibly. Mill levies are written in by the state as part of the process. Montana’s school funding formula says that 80% of a district’s budget comes from the state, while the remaining 20% comes from local mill levies. Fully funding our schools means regularly passing levies. Also, the total budget for Billings Public Schools is capped by law, meaning that there is an upper limit to spending in the district and a limit to mill levy amounts.

Isn’t this just going to fund more raises?

Mill levy funds will largely go to operational costs, which include personnel. Public school teachers work on contracts negotiated by their union representatives. The district is working hard to ensure fiscal responsibility, while still recognizing that education is a people business, and our teachers are our most important asset.

At the same time, Superintendent Upham has implemented a new approach to contract negotiations, focusing on shared interests and a vision for reform rather than the tired old “management vs. labor” dynamic. Focusing on a mutual commitment to create and operate a high quality public education system develops a sustainable budget.

I support the schools, but I already pay more in taxes than I can afford.

There is real and understandable taxpayer fatigue. Billings Public Schools would rather not ask you to vote on these mill levies but that’s the position the state puts us in. If we want to fund our schools at 100% of the level authorized by the state, 20% of that funding is tied to mill levies.

We encourage you to have a frank conversation with your representative in the Montana Legislature about the structural flaws in the current school funding formula. You can find their contact information at https://leg.mt.gov/.

What ways can I get involved?

At this time, the biggest need is communication. Talk with your friends and neighbors about Billings schools – share your experiences and what you hope to see our schools do in the future. Consider reaching out to legislators to express your opinion on the school funding formula. When candidates knock on your door this year, ask them about the funding formula and how it impacts Billings Public Schools.

Volunteer in your school, or any school, if you don’t have children in the district. Be in the classroom as an extra set of hands, or as a substitute. Volunteer as a crossing guard or a lunchroom helper. Participate in school projects and fundraisers. If you are a parent, attend parent meetings. Be engaged in your school. You are a force multiplier – your time can make a huge difference.

And of course, vote on the upcoming mill levy and encourage your social networks to vote also. Ballots mail out on April 13 and must be received in the county election office by May 3.

Aren’t there other ways to fund these programs?

Perhaps – that’s why we are inviting parents, teachers and community members to take a hard look at the way we educate our children. When the business community began approaching the district to express workforce concerns, we were able to evaluate how we educated our high schoolers and prepared them to enter the world. We learned that our approach was outdated and not responsive to community needs – or student interests. That launched a transformational effort to reform career and technical education in the community – a conversation that resulted in new levels of private investment in equipment, instructional supplies and experiential learning to improve student outcomes.

How do behavioral issues and student mental health factor into this problem?

Billings Public Schools is dealing with a significant increase in student needs related to mental health and childhood trauma. We are seeing an increasing number of children coming into Billings Public Schools who have the kind of trauma that impairs their ability to learn and function in a classroom environment. When rates of child abuse and neglect, homelessness and substance abuse increase in the community, our schools feel that impact.

We are seeing a phenomenon of traumatized classrooms in our district – classrooms that have multiple children dealing with severe trauma, so much that basic classroom management and student safety is at risk. Managing these dynamics is costly and complex and requires a broader community effort beyond just the schools.