GFPS considering levy options for projected budget shortfall

The school board’s budget committee is meeting this month to discuss the financial picture for the next fiscal year for Great Falls Public Schools and options to make up the projected $1.1 million shortfall.

Among the options being considered are an operational levy, a technology levy, or a safety levy, or some combination of the three.

[District budget information here]

The public is encouraged to attend the next session on Nov. 20 at 5:30 p.m. in the new addition at Great Falls High School, 1900 2nd Ave. S.

The budget committee is comprised of three school board members: Jan Cahill, Kim Skornogoski and Mark Finnicum.

School board approves budget that includes reduction in taxes

The committee held a public meeting last week to gather community feedback, is accepting written comments and will take public comment again on Nov. 20.

At that meeting, the committee is expected to develop a recommendation to take to the full board on Nov. 25 during a regular school board meeting at 5:30 p.m. at the district office.

GFPS looking at budget options to absorb projected shortfall

Based on enrollment and other factors, the budget forecast for GFPS’ general fund shows an estimated $1.1 million shortfall.

The enrollment numbers and other data needed to calculate the school budget isn’t final yet so that figure could change slightly.

“We’re faced with making some tough decisions,” Superintendent Tom Moore said in an interview with The Electric this week.

The district could run levies or make cuts or some combination of the two.

Over the last decade, the district has done various combinations of those options and cut 102 teachers over that period to balance budgets, Brian Patrick said in the interview. Patrick is the business operations director for GFPS.

The high school enrollment is declining but elementary enrollment is showing an upward trend, Moore said.

In making their budget projections, district staff use a variety of data points, including birth and mortality rates, to estimate enrollment at least five years into the future.

The local population has been fairly stable over the last few decades and enrollment has also been stable over the last decade at GFPS, but costs continue to increase for salaries, insurance, equipment, maintenance and other operations needs, Moore said.

One possible option the budget committee is considering is a $1.3 million operational levy that would bring the GFPS budget to 100 percent funded.

The state provides funding for only 80 percent of a school districts needs and left it to local taxpayers to fund the rest, which is why the district’s revenues often fall short of its expenses.

With the $1.3 million levy, the district would offer 2 percent raises for employees.

The estimated tax impact of that levy on a $100,000 house is $12.40 annually, according to GFPS.

Without the levy, the district would likely be looking at more cuts and a 1.5 percent salary increase for employees.

GFPS employees about 1,700 people.

Competitive salaries play into recruitment and retention for teachers and support staff, Moore, Patrick and Cahill said.

Since there’s fewer people going into teaching, they’ll go elsewhere if the pay in Great Falls isn’t as competitive, Patrick said.

He said there’s been a shift and that the district used to have people lining up to teach in Great Falls and now they struggle to fill teaching positions.

Cahill said he applied at GFPS early in his career and was among 300 applicants for one spot.

Moore said the district has goals of making wages more competitive with other districts in the state, “but we don’t necessarily have the budget.”

Another option the committee is considering is a technology levy.

The district currently has a permanent tech levy that voters approved in 2002 for $150,000 for the elementary and $75,000 for the high school districts.

Patrick said that the technology levy will run permanently unless an increased amount is requested and approved by the voters and then the levy would run for 10 years.

The 2017 effort to increase the high school tech levy to $500,000 failed.

District staff presented four tech levy options to the budget committee last week, which include no change, or increased tech levy combinations for elementary and high school districts that range from $650,000 to $1.6 million.

Moore and Cahill said GFPS ranks second to last among other AA and A districts in the state for technology spending per pupil.

“If we want our students to have a competitive edge, we’re going to have to invest,” Moore said.

The district could also run a safety levy to address priorities including adding two school resource officers, entrance security with buzz-in systems, a district wide radio system, additional cameras and more. The total costs for the districts top safety priorities are about $1.2 million.

Currently there are four SROs and the district covers 75 percent of the total cost of those police officers. The remaining cost is funded by the Great Falls Police Department.

Moore said that if enrollment numbers don’t increase or the state doesn’t make changes to school funding, they’ll continue to have budget challenges.

“There’s a challenge here that’s substantial,” he said.