GFPS budget committee recommends levy for May ballot
The school board’s budget committee voted 3-0 during a Nov. 20 meeting to recommend to the full board to pursue an operational levy on the May ballot.
The committee approved a motion to seek an elementary levy in the maximum allowable amount, which has yet to be fully calculated since it’s based on enrollment and other variables that won’t be finalized until the spring, but school officials estimate it at $1.3 million.
The estimated tax impact of that levy on a $100,000 house is $12.40 annually, according to GFPS.
The budget committee is comprised of three school board members: Jan Cahill, Kim Skornogoski and Mark Finnicum.
They all indicated a preference for focusing on the operational levy so the district could meet critical needs though they recognize the needs that a technology and/or safety levy would also support.
Should a levy pass, all the district’s collective bargaining agreements include a provision that gives a two percent salary increase. Without a levy, the labor agreements include a 1.5 percent increase for next year. The district employs about 1,700 people.
State law created a situation for school funding in which the state funds 80 percent of the operational budget and left the remaining 20 percent up to lower taxpayers, according to Brian Patrick, the business operations director for Great Falls Public Schools.
That means, he and other school officials said, that without an increase in enrollment and/or law changes, the district will face budget shortfalls for the foreseeable future.
Based on current enrollment numbers, state funding and other variables, Patrick is forecasting a $1.1 million shortfall for GFPS’ next fiscal year.
The committee’s recommendation will go to the full board on Nov. 25 during a regular school board meeting at 5:30 p.m. at the district office.
The committee held several public meetings to gather community feedback and about 100 people attended the Nov. 20 meeting in the new hub building at Great Falls High School.
During the meeting, Laura Crist, a parent of GFPS students, said she thought the priority should be the operational levy.
“We need to support the people who interact with out students on a daily basis,” she said.
If the district pursued all three levy options, Crist said she worried they’d splinter positive votes for schools and then nothing would pass.
Dusty Molyneaux, the fine arts department supervisor, said there had been drastic cuts in the music and arts in the city who’s most famous resident is Charlie Russell.
He said there are currently two art teachers in the high schools.
“How do you maintain a program with two teachers? It’s scary. I don’t know how long we can sustain this,” Molyneaux said.
In the elementary system, Molyneaux said there are three art teachers for all 15 elementary schools, which equates to about 1,900 students per teacher.
“It’s a grueling schedule, it’s almost impossible to do,” he said.
Gerry Jennings, a local activist whose four children graduated from GFPS, said she doesn’t want to see today’s children and grandchildren getting less of an education than hers did.
She said one of her sons gives four scholarships annually to GFPS students because of the education he received here.
“I’m just appalled at this community for not passing levies,” she said. “This community deserves the best schools in Montana.
Cyndi Baker, who has run for school board in the past, said she didn’t think the school district making cuts was unlike what the business sector had to do. She said enrollment was down, but the district also got increased funding from the state.
Baker said the school board should understand why voters have rejected levies in recent years.
“They’re squeezed,” she said. “I think you might be fighting an uphill battle.”
Over the last decade, the district has done various combinations of those options and cut 102 teachers over that period to balance budgets. The district has also made budget cuts totaling $10.5 million between 2008-2019, Patrick said.
Teresa Schreiner, a school board member, but speaking in her capacity as a Great Falls Development Authority, said “if you invest in education, you invest in your economy.”
She said business professionals often tour schools before making a decision to take a job in Great Falls.
Carol Paul, the title coordinator for GFPS, said teachers were spread thin.
“We just suck it up and we make it work,” Paul said.
She said teachers with a starting salary and a family of four would qualify for free lunch. A teacher that stays in that pay grade for awhile with two children could qualify for reduced lunch for up to 11 years.
Paul said more children are dealing with trauma, problems at home and behavior issues.
“We love these kids to death, we will do whatever it takes to support them, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy,” she said.
Shane Etzweiler, head of the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, said education is a key factor in recruiting businesses and employees to the area.
“We are at a critical point in our city, we’re at a critical point in our schools,” he said. “We can’t continue to cut. Our schools are in a crisis.”
During the committee discussion, Skornogoski said the district should pursue the operational levy on the next ballot and then perhaps look at the safety and technology levies in the near future.
“We need the things that have been cut. We need 100 teachers back,” she said. “If we don’t get citizen support, we will have to make more cuts, drastic cuts.”