GFPS sending $1.75 million levy to May ballot
Great Falls Public Schools trustees voted unanimously during their March 9 meeting to send a $1.75 million levy to the May ballot.
That will require a 12.05 mill increase, which is about $16.27 per $100,000 home or $32.54 per $200,000 annually, according to GFPS.
The maximum that GFPS could levy in the elementary district is $1,785,295.70.
Last year’s GFPS budget levied fewer mills since the value of mills increased, meaning school taxes were decreased by $8.15 on a $100,000 residential property, decreased by $12.23 on a $150,000 property, and decreased by $16.31 on a $200,000 property, according to GFPS data. The decrease was also in part due to state assistance.
The board approved language for the elementary district levy to be placed on the May 5 school ballot. The May election is an estimated $40,000 cost to the district and will also include three school board positions, if more than three candidates file. If there are three candidates or less by the April 2 write-in deadline, the district can cancel the election as it did last year.
So far, only two candidates have filed. Those candidates are Jan Cahill, current board chair, and Eric Heinbach. The filing deadline is 5 p.m. March 26.
This year, there are three three-year seats up for election. Those seats are currently held by Cahill, Jason Brantley and Kim Skornogoski.
In November, the school board voted unanimously to send a levy to the May ballot and at the time, staff estimated it would be about $1.3 million, but wouldn’t be able to finalize the figures until the spring.
School board members said they typically make a decision about pursuing a levy in February, but wanted to start earlier this year in an effort to better educate the public about the schools budget and what they called a “dire” need for more funding.
Under state law, the state provides 80 percent of a school districts complete operational budget. The state left the other 20 percent up to local taxpayers.
The community approved a $98 million facilities bond for school construction, renovation and improvements.
Those funds cannot be used for school operations.
The levy going to the May ballot would support general operations, including teacher and staff salaries, materials, supplies, activities and programs that are supported by the general fund.
“A levy is for learning,” Cahill said during the March 9 meeting.
Cahill said that maintaining quality education for students requires money and that the district has been operating $1 million to $2 million under what the state says is it’s maximum operational budget for a decade.
Mark Finnicum, school board member who also serves on the board’s budget committee, said the levy isn’t to add new programs or staff but “is maintaining what we already have.”
Kim Skornogoski, the third member of the board’s budget committee, said that over the last decade, only two operational levies had been approved by voters and that resulted in $10 million worth of cuts and the loss of 100 teachers.
“We’ve been bleeding,” she said. “We have an opportunity on May 5 to stop the bleeding.”
Brett Doney of the Great Falls Development Authority said their board supports the levy because “education is so critical.”
Doney said that when companies and individuals are looking at coming to or investing in Great Falls, education is a major consideration.
“We’ve let the cuts go for too long and too deep,” he said.
Gerry Jennings, an education advocate and retired nurse, said she’s frustrated with the lack of levies over the years and the resulting budget cuts.
“I can’t imagine one person voting against education,” she said.
Cyndi Baker, regular meeting goer and former school board candidate, said she represented the 9,000 residents who voted against the last levy, largely because of administrative salaries.
“It’s a big ask,” she said.
Shane Etzweiler, head of the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, said their board voted to support the levy, particularly in light of the Air Force’s recent announcement that it will consider local education and state licensure policy in future basing decisions.
Jason Brantley, school board member, said that cutting taxpayers meant fewer taxpayers and more chances for students to dropout since there were less adults to support them in schools.
“It’s shortsighted to think about saving a few pennies now,” Brantley said, when thinking of future costs of less educational programs and higher dropout numbers.
He said that administrative salaries are often a point of contention but that they have greater responsibilities and training worthy of their pay levels.
In an interview with The Electric last week, Superintendent Tom Moore said GFPS is the third largest employer in Cascade County with 20 percent of the city’s population in GFPS facilities on any given day, with 21 buildings, 1,900 employees and a $94 million budget.
Moore said that most of the administrative positions are required by state law, some are funded with grant funds and in total, 48 administrative positions make up 4.8 percent of expenditures from all funds. The bulk of those positions, 28, are principals and associate principals. In total, those administrative position salaries equal $4.5 million.
The top seven district-wide positions that earn more than $100,000 make up 0.9 percent of expenditures from all funds, or 1.2 percent of the general fund, according to district data.
Statewide, Helena and Kalispell also have seven district-wide administrators, but fewer students. Billings has more students and 12 district-wide administrators. Missoula and Bozeman have fewer students and 10 district-wide administrators, according to data compiled by GFPS.
The district cut an administrative position when the person in the position moved to Billings during Tammy Lacey’s tenure, representing a $98,000 cut, Moore said, and those responsibilities were absorbed by assistant superintendents. The assessment coordinator administrative position was also cut in recent years, Moore said, and the duties were split between two other existing staff members.
The school board’s budget committee held multiple public meetings about the budget and levy options, including two in November.