Havre Daily News
The Havre school board voted unanimously Tuesday to ask taxpayers to approve a mill levy and boost the elementary and high school district budgets by 4 percent.
The $97,000 raised by the levy may enable the district to access an additional $330,000 in state education dollars under a House bill now before the state Legislature.
The board will ask voters to approve a tax increase of 4.39 mills, or $65,317 for the elementary district, and 1.9 mills, or $32,837, for the high school district. That comes to $9.63 annually for a $100,000 home in the elementary district, and $4.18 for a $100,000 home in the high school district.
The issue will appear on the ballot May 3, along with the HPS board race, in which four candidates are vying for three seats.
Even with the additional local and state dollars, HPS will be facing a difficult task in setting next year's budget. It would take a tax levy of 40 mills, far beyond what the district can legally ask for, just to cover the projected increase in district health insurance costs, HPS Superintendent Kirk Miller told the school board Tuesday night.
That means cuts could be coming. For instance, the district may not replace four teachers who have submitted letters of resignation because they are retiring, Miller said. The schools have the staff to cover those positions, he said.
A House bill that would have provided schools with a statewide insurance plan, as well as incentives to join it, died in the Legislature. Opponents said the costs were too high, but supporters of the bill said the individual districts will face staggering increases without it. Speaking with state legislators last month, Miller said Havre is an example of a district facing rising costs, and that other districts across the state are in the same position or soon will be.
Miller told the board that the school district administration made a conservative guess as to what will come out of the Legislature this year when it came up with its mill levy proposal.
The mill levy proposal adopted Tuesday night would maximize the state money that could be available through HB 63, HPS director of operations Ric Floren told the school board.
The Legislature is considering HB 63, in response to an October Montana Supreme Court ruling that the state's education funding formula is unconstitutional.
The bill would provide an additional $45 million in school funding, including a 2 percent across-the-board increase for inflation and an additional $250 for each elementary student and $100 for each high school student. Not all of the money would be guaranteed, however. Some would come in the form of matching funds for money raised by local mill levy increases.
"We have asked for everything that we could, by law," Floren said.
He said the district should take advantage of the extra state funds, which would be available for one year only. Most of HB 63's increase would come in the first of two years between legislative sessions.
HB 63 has another provision that would help Havre next year, Miller said. The bill would change the way a district's student population is calculated, making the school population used as the basis for state funding an average of three years. In the past, student population was reached by averaging attendance on two days in a single school year.
"The change in essence returns a third of the students lost in the past year back" to Havre's rolls for calculating funding, Miller said.
"Is this enough?" school board member Todd Hanson asked.
Miller said the increase next year is not enough because of the rising health insurance costs. The district is in the middle of negotiating its health insurance contract, but estimates so far have included an increase of about $600,000 in the amount the district will need to pay.
The Legislature has not gone far enough, Miller said. The Supreme Court required the state to define a quality education, analyze the educational needs of students in the state and create a funding model that reflects that. The Legislature has only met the first criteria.
As for a one-year fix, Miller said, HB 63 is a start.
Board member Kathie Newell said the need for more local tax dollars is a result of the state passing the buck.
"We need for the Legislature, the government and our community to hear: No, this isn't enough. We are making it enough. ... But there reaches a point where, no, we can't make it enough anymore."
Newell said she is impressed that the local taxpayers have continually chosen to support the schools.
"That lets the state off the hook," she said. "We're holding our local taxpayers hostage" and it's the state's fault.
Norm Procter, Teresa Miller and Joe Marino did not attend Tuesday's meeting. Miller and Procter were excused, having given notice that they would not be able to attend. Marino was noted as having not been excused. He came to the end of the meeting and told a reporter he had been held up by work obligations.
Miller and Marino's seats on the school board are up for election this year. Both are running for re-election, along with chair Denise Thompson. Mike Barts is also running for a position.
The May 3 election will be held at the HHS gym. Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Absentee ballots are available beginning April 13 at Robins School. Absentee voting closes May 2 at noon.