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Trustees approve budget reductions for Helena Public Schools

Posted at 9:37 AM, Jun 12, 2024

At a meeting on Tuesday evening, the Helena Public Schools board of trustees gave their approval to the district’s plans for budget reductions, aimed at closing a projected shortfall.

The district came out with its proposed cuts after voters rejected a series of five levies that would have increased property taxes to raise additional revenue.

During the meeting, district leaders said they were ready to take the steps needed to get the budget where it needs to be, but those steps are not going to be painless.

“We will lean in and we will do this, but it comes at a cost and it's really hard work – really hard work,” said Superintendent Rex Weltz.

Rex Weltz
Helena Public Schools Superintendent Rex Weltz laid out proposed district budget cuts at a board of trustees meeting, June 11, 2024.

All together, the board approved about $2.5 million in cuts: almost $975,000 to elementary schools, more than $342,000 to middle schools and $1.2 million to high schools. Leaders said their goal was not to cut any programs entirely, with the hope they can potentially rebuild them if more funding becomes available in the future.

“We're keeping in mind not to eliminate, but to keep programs alive, keep opportunities alive for students so that we can bring them back – because the fear is, when they are gone, they're gone forever,” Weltz said.

The district went through a budget consensus process to identify recommendations for possible reductions if the levies failed.

“Although it is not easy today, it's easier now that we have the recommendations – though, again, everyone's feeling this,” said Weltz.

Some of the significant reductions trustees approved Tuesday include cutting 11 high school teaching positions by increasing the number of daily classes each teacher has, though all but two of the reductions would be achieved through retirements or leaves of absence; reducing staff for the PEAK gifted and talented program and shifting more gifted education to the students’ main classroom; and cutting elementary students’ music and PE from four times each every two weeks to three times each.

Other cuts would include additional teaching positions, paraeducators, secretaries and custodians.

In addition, the district is using up to $2 million in this year’s budget from one-time-only reserves, to prevent steeper cuts – but trustees warned that meant they might be back in this position next year if more money doesn’t become available, either through a change in the state funding formula or a future levy.

During Tuesday’s meeting, many people giving public comment expressed concerns about the effects of the cuts – particularly to music and PE. Brenda Nordlund, a former HPS trustee, said that step was going to have a broad negative impact for students and that she was disappointed the board hadn’t proposed closing an elementary school – likely Hawthorne Elementary – as an alternative.

“I can guarantee you that parents will be shocked when they find out that their librarians, their counselors, their PE, their music, is all going to be denigrated because of the choices that are being made and the choice that was made that you would not consider closing any schools,” she said.

Brenda Nordlund
Brenda Nordlund, a former Helena Public Schools trustee, speaks about her concerns about proposed district budget cuts during a school board meeting, June 11, 2024.

Trustee Jennifer McKee said they had looked at closing Hawthorne, but that relocating the students who go there with such short notice would have required them to bring in modular classrooms – and that would have undone any financial benefit from the move.

“If there was money in closing Hawthorne, there's no doubt in my mind that we'd be talking about it – we probably would be doing it,” she said.

However, McKee said that didn’t mean Hawthorne would stay open forever. Trustee Jeff Hindoien said it’s difficult under the state’s funding formula for districts to continue to operate small elementary schools if their enrollment isn’t growing fast.

“We have drug out our ability to run small K-5s about as far as we can go,” he said.

Overall, trustees said they weren’t left with any good options.

“We're stuck between cutting things that matter,” said Janet Armstrong. “There's no one cut we're going to do that's not going to matter to a family out there.”

“This is not something that people want to do,” said board chair Siobhan Hathhorn. “The basic line is to keep our head above water, to keep our school district solvent.”