By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Voters in the Havre school district will decide Tuesday whether to approve a mill levy to raise an estimated $155,000 for the district.
The levy requests an increase of about 3.22 mills in Elementary District 16 - to raise about $47,202 - and an increase of about 6.32 mills in High School District A - to raise about $107,202.
For someone with a $100,000 property inside the boundaries of both districts, that would mean a tax increase of about $22 next year. For those living in the Cottonwood or Davey school districts, the elementary millage would not apply. Each district sets its own mills.
Another $208,434 will be coming to the district as a result of a net enrollment increase of five students and a school funding increase of about 2 percent approved by the state Legislature in 2003.
The levy plus the extra state money would increase the district's $10 million general fund budget by about $363,500 - about 3.8 percent - over last year's budget, HPS Superintendent Kirk Miller told the school board in March.
Miller said the increase is necessary to help the district cope with rising energy costs, the rising cost of textbooks, and other supplies and general building maintenance, and to help it competitively recruit and retain teachers.
Miller said Thursday he doesn't know exactly how the money raised by the levy would be distributed among those costs. Natural gas and electricity costs are estimated to rise by $60,000 next year, he said.
Whether the district has to make budget cuts for the upcoming year will depend on the outcome of contract negotiations with teachers, classified staff and administrators this spring, he said.
The four candidates running for two three-year seats on the Havre school board weighed in this week on the issue of whether to support the mill levy.
Incumbent Kathie Newell voiced strong support for the levy.
"I most certainly support the request that the trustees are taking to the voters. The district would not ask for the money if it was not needed and the sorts of things that the money is planned for are vital," Newell said, citing the cost of utilities and supplies and the need to invest in teacher recruitment and retention.
Newell said she thinks some voters may not understand that the $736,000 being spent to renovate Blue Pony Stadium is not coming from the district's general fund.
The project is being paid for with a combination of money from the district's building reserve fund raised by a mill levy approved by voters last spring for three projects that include the stadium; from corporate sponsorship; and from parking fees and from rent paid by Montana State University-Northern to use the stadium. The building reserve money cannot be used for other expenses like teacher salaries, which come out of the district's general fund.
Candidate Bonnie Benson said she will vote for the mill levy.
"I will vote for a mill levy, because I believe that education is important and we need to support it," she said.
But Benson said that with the economy struggling, people can't afford a tax hike every time the district needs money. Instead, she said, the board should start taking some "hard looks at the budget."
"People are really struggling financially," she said. "As trustees and administrators, we have to start looking at ways of saving the taxpayers money instead of taxing them more."
Benson has criticized the district for the amount it is spending on renovating Blue Pony Stadium.
She said that even though she understands that the money being spent on the stadium comes from the building reserve fund and not from the general fund, she knows that some people are uneasy with the amount being spent on the stadium.
"I just think it's hard to vote for a mill levy when they see the money that's being spent on the football field," she said.
The two other school board candidates said they support the levy.
"I think it needs to be passed," said candidate Norman Proctor. "As far as our school district, we need to keep our schools warm and power on."
Candidate Mike Ley said he is not familiar with the details of the levy, but that from what he's read about it, he supports it.
"It looks like it's affordable, and probably the reason (he supports it) is I'm trusting the homework of the folks who came up with the information," he said, referring to district administrators.
State law establishes a ceiling on districts' budgets based on enrollment plus a basic education entitlement given to all public schools. If a district is already at its limit and enrollment declines, the district has to cut its budget to make up for the funding it loses from the enrollment decline - it cannot pass a mill levy to make up the money.
Tuesday's mill levy, if approved, would bring the high school district up to or near that ceiling, Miller said. The elementary district, which includes Havre Middle School, has been at its limit for several years, he said, but an enrollment increase in the elementary district this year allows that district to increase its budget.
There was a slight decline in enrollment in the high school district this year, but Miller said he expects an enrollment increase next year that should sustain the high school for the next four years. The district has held out from increasing the high school budget to its limit for as long as it could, he said.
The last time the district asked voters to approve a general fund mill levy was two years ago, when it requested 4.6 mills to raise a total of $240,000.
At that time, Miller said the levies, which later passed, were needed to hire two teachers and pay for higher teacher salaries and rising energy and school supply costs.
Voting takes place Tuesday at the Havre High School gymnasium from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Absentee ballots can be obtained from the Robins Administration Building, 425 Sixth St., between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Absentee voting closes Monday at noon.