GFPS board votes to forgo levy this year
The Great Falls Public Schools board voted during their March 27 meeting to forgo pursuing an operational levy for the upcoming budget year.
The board’s budget committee discussed the options during a March 15 meeting and recommended to the full board to take the staff recommendation of using about $5 million of remaining federal COVID relief funds to offset some of the shortfall and forgo levy this year.
During their March 15 committee meeting, district staff reviewed the budget projection and expect at least a $404,084 shortfall if collective bargaining agreements are finalized with a 1 percent wage increase.
Brian Patrick, GFPS business operations manager, said during the committee meeting that multiple labor agreements are currently being negotiated so there are some unknowns for the budget, but since inflation has increased substantially for consumers, trustees should expect larger increases in those agreements as the district needs to attract and retain staff and teachers.
Lance Boyd, student services director, said during the committee meeting that the district was frugal in its use of the federal COVID relief dollars since “we knew there was going to be a fiscal cliff,” and has about $10 million remaining of those funds, though they must be expended by September 2024.
“We’ve been very frugal in how the money has been allocated out,” Boyd said.
If the labor agreements include a 2.7 percent wage increase, the district would have a $1,220,720 shortfall.
If there was a 3 percent labor increase, there would be a $1,364,832 shortfall.
GFPS officials said that they’re still waiting on the Legislature to conclude to know the full impact on education and school funding.
If the district were to pursue a levy, the maximum amount is $535,059 for the elementary district, or 2.62 mills, for a $4.89 increase on a property with a $100,000 taxable value.
The maximum for the high school district is $805,386, or 5.36 mills, for a $7.24 increase on a house with a $100,000 taxable value.
The total maximum the district could levy is $1,340,445, Patrick told the budget committee.
Superintendent Tom Moore said that they’ve done budget reviews and have struggled to hire new teachers to address COVID learning loss.
He said the district hired 101 teachers last year, some on one and two-year contracts and that they were able to move some of them into regular teaching positions.
But, they couldn’t hire enough teachers, which has created the surplus in funding this year, particularly for the second phase of federal COVID relief funds.
“At this point, we don’t believe we need to do,” a levy, Moore told the board committee earlier this week.
Moore said that once they get enrollment numbers in the fall, that staff needs to start planning for the following year’s budget since that surplus won’t likely exist again.
Bill Bronson, school board member, said during the committee meeting that once those numbers are set in the fall, the district will need to “hunker down and really think carefully about next year and the year after.”
Bronson said that even with being frugal, they have ended up with a shortfall due to increasing costs.
He said that the district will be using $5 million of one-time monies to address that deficit this year, but that additional funding runs out soon.
“But in doing that, we’re not running a high frills operation here, we’re running a very tight ship,” Bronson said, and the district needs to be able to attract staff.
Paige Turoski, school board member, said during the board committee meeting that since the county did a public safety levy last year and the city has two levies planned this year, “I think that adding our into it as well, we might just get lost in the mix.”
She thanked GFPS staff for “being smart, how everyone’s been fiscally,” and using the COVID relief funds, “might bring good favor in the public for a future levy.”
Patrick said that state statute allows that during a legislative year, the district can wait and run a levy election later, but that’s an additional expense.
Patrick also told the budget committee during their March 15 meeting that there’s been some uncertainty with the county elections office and handling upcoming elections, so as a consideration for a levy he “might be a little nervous having money involved in that,” in case of a legal challenge to the elections.
Patrick said that GFPS has only run mail elections in his entire tenure at the district.
In years past, when the district did poll elections, there were a number of precincts people could walk into to vote, but that required more staff and there were “quite a few expenses with that as well.”
Sandra Merchant, the county clerk and recorder, notified GFPS by email that she was changing their May 2 election from a mail ballot to poll election.
The school board voted earlier this year to conduct a mail ballot election, as they have for years. Patrick told The Electric that their last poll election was in 2007 with more than 30 polling places.
Bronson said during the March 15 meeting that in his years as a city commissioner, the poll election was “far more expensive” and that was one of the reasons the city went to the mail ballot in an effort to save the taxpayer money.