School district does not spend money frivolously

By: 
Doreen Heintz
Reporter

Over the past several years, I have been covering the business of the Lewistown Board of Trustees. Because I am a former teacher, covering Board meetings has been important to me.
School budgeting is one of the more difficult aspects of covering school board meetings. The meetings, which dealt with school budgeting this year, have been made even more difficult due to the fact the Montana Legislature is also in session.
Here we are in the last week of April and the school election is just a couple days away. With the legislature just days away from adjournment, school districts are still not sure what may happen with school funding from the state.
I always thought it would be good for everyone if the legislature would tackle  school funding at the beginning of the session. Let’s say for example, they would have all school funding issues decided by the mid-point of the legislative session. If not, then why not move school elections to sometime in June. Fiscally, a new school year begins on July 1, so why not have June elections so new board members and levies pass just before the new fiscal year?
I think early May was set for school elections many years ago. Until a few years ago, voters could go to the polls up to three times if a levy wasn’t passed. If a levy failed in May, sometimes the district would decrease the levy request and then have a new levy request in June for the voters. A second defeat could mean a third request to the voters.
Today, voters get one chance to pass or fail a mill levy election. If it does not pass, the school district must wait one year to put a new levy election in front of the voters.
Things have changed rather dramatically over the years with school funding. School funding had to change when several school districts sued the state over equal funding. For example, due to state statute, a levy could not be run in the Lewistown high school district this year.
The voters in the Lewistown elementary school district are being asked to raise local taxes by $68,606.20 or approximately 5.54 mills. Clear back in January the school board began looking at the elementary and high school budgets. They knew then the school districts were facing a shortfall for the 2017-2018 school year. The board also knew they would not be able to run a request for an increase in mill levies for the high school district.
An amount of $68,000 does not seem like a big chunk of money when looking at a $3 million budget in the elementary, but one thing voters in Lewistown need to know is there is not any fluff left in the budgets for School District No. 1.
When I was teaching back in the 1980s and 1990s, there was some wiggle room in school budgets. I can remember for several years being able to have the school district purchase what I needed for my classroom and P.E. classes for the following school year with money left over from the current year. 
One thing I have found out by covering the Lewistown school board meetings over the past few years is that this school board is very frugal with the taxpayers’ money. Not once have I heard them discuss how they can raise taxes just so they can have extra money to spend.
If you think that is not true, I challenge you to attend some school board meetings to see for yourself how the members take their jobs seriously.
Back in February, the board was looking at a shortfall of over $300,000 in the elementary district and over $188,000 in the high school. Meetings took place at individual schools throughout the district to look for ways to cut without hurting the quality of education. The school administrators took the ideas to their monthly administrators’ meetings and came up with some additional ways to save money.
Some of the ways the school board is looking at saving money are a reduction of maintenance supplies and staffing hours, reducing secretary contract days, reduction in school supply budget, reduction of certified staff by 1.2 FTE at the junior high, and a reduction of paraprofessionals. In addition the insurance committee of the school board recommended the deductible for comprehensive medical go from $1,000 to $1,500 as a cost-saving measure.
With the voters approving an additional $68,000 in the elementary school district, an  additional teacher may be able to be hired if necessary, or more paraprofessionals may be able to be hired.
One thing I know for sure is the $68,000 will be put to good use and not be spent frivolously.
Most of all, remember to vote on Tuesday, May 2. The polls are open from noon until 8 p.m. Not only will you be voting on an additional elementary school levy, but you will be voting for three board members with three-year terms.
 

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