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'Really suffering:' Southeastern Montana schools hoping to pass levies Tuesday

School Levy
Posted at 8:40 AM, May 07, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-07 10:40:26-04

On Tuesday, schools in southeastern Montana will be anxiously awaiting the voting results of district levies.

If passed, many of these levies would go a long way in helping these school districts battle a statewide budget shortfall, which many administrators attribute to inflation and the lack of an adjusted allocation of funding from the state.

Laurel will be looking to pass four levies on Tuesday, and Superintendent Matt Torix said the vote comes at a time when the district desperately needs the support.

"Schools are really suffering, and we're having to cut programs," Torix said Monday afternoon. "It's just incredible the costs that are associated with a school district."

Torix said they've been forced to cut jobs and programs the past two school years because of budget issues.

"We've reduced in force five positions last year and 14 this year," Torix said. "We realize those are jobs, and lives, and mortgages but we just haven't had a choice."

Two of the levies in Laurel are building operations, which are placed on the ballot every five years, and are renewals of existing funding. The other two are operational levies, which Torix said can be used to increase salaries or even bring back positions the district was forced to cut.

"We're trying to compete with North Dakota and Wyoming and states that are paying 20 percent more," Torix said. "We'll do what we have to do, and that's happening all over Yellowstone County and all over the state."

And that effort is apparent in the amount of southeastern school districts attempting to pass levies on Tuesday. The list includes Billings Public Schools, Laurel, Canyon Creek, Joliet, Park City, Roberts, Fromberg, Forsyth and Colstrip.

Montana Free Press Education reporter Alex Sakaraissen follows the budget troubles of local school districts.

"Not just for those services like keeping the lights on, but for staff salaries for employees who are having to face rising costs of their own," Sakaraissen said. "They're looking at rising costs of utilities and insurance. In some cases, those costs have doubled."

The levies are general or building levies in the smaller school districts. In Billings, the district is seeking about $5 million in two widely discussed public safety levies.

Torix said it's been at least 15 years since Laurel voters passed an operational school levy, and the district needs it desperately.

"We're still running on old budgets that go up and down as our student count goes up and down," Torix said.