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Helena school board discusses budget, facility recommendations

Posted at 11:40 PM, Feb 13, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-14 13:38:13-05

HELENA — On Tuesday, the audience was full at the Helena Public Schools Board of Trustees meeting, as leaders discussed a set of key recommendations on how to address a projected budget shortfall and catalog the district’s long-term facility needs.

“There’s been a lot of interest, and we’re thankful for that – there needs to be,” said Superintendent Rex Weltz.

District leaders said they’ve been aware of the need to prepare for an upcoming fiscal challenge for several years. COVID and the federal aid that flowed into districts after the pandemic delayed it, but that aid is now running out.

Last year, HPS put together a stakeholder committee – including parents, teachers, administrators, board members and people from the community – to look at the budget situation, including potential options for making cuts if the district faced a significant shortfall going into the 2024-25 school year.

“It is important that, in doing this, we put everything on the table, whether we liked it or we didn't like it,” said trustee Janet Armstrong, who was part of the committee. “That doesn't mean that idea goes anywhere – and you'll see in the notes, several ideas are not going anywhere – but we really needed to look at the problem from all angles.”

Rob Watson and Rex Weltz

Rob Watson, executive director of the School Administrators of Montana, facilitated the committee’s work. He said they held brainstorming sessions where they discussed potential reductions.

“They just threw a bunch of stuff up; they didn't try to censor themselves,” he said.

Leaders put together estimated savings for each of those items, then asked committee members to rank them based on their perceived impacts to five “value statements,” like encouraging student achievement, meeting educational standards and supporting district staff. They then put the possible cuts into ranked lists, so the board could consider the least impactful items first and the most impactful ones only if necessary.

“The committee understands that this is just simply a recommendation, and that the board's going to do what the board's going to do with regards to their decisions,” Watson said.

The lists begin with reducing central office and department budgets and go on to include potential program consolidations and cutting staff positions. However, leaders said HPS has already taken steps to reduce the projected deficit, and none of the options on those lists would be painless.

Many of those providing public comment Tuesday were parents particularly concerned about two possible reductions: cutting back the PEAK program for gifted and talented education and closing one or more elementary schools. Speakers whose children are in the PEAK program said it’s already suffered since the closure of Ray Bjork Learning Center last year, and that the program has reached their kids in ways others can’t. Parents from Broadwater and Hawthorne Elementary Schools expressed the most concern that their schools could be up for closure, and said the loss of a nearby neighborhood school would have negative impacts outweighing any cost savings.

Helena School Board Public Comment

Board members said no decisions have been made, and they’ll have the final say on which – if any – cuts are made.

“Ultimately, the buck stops at the board level,” said board chair Siobhan Hathhorn.

Leaders said what happens in the coming months will have a big impact on what the board has to do. In January, the budget committee heard the shortfall next school year could range from around $660,000 to more than $4.5 million. Since then, the district has secured almost $1 million in additional revenue, through the approval of three charter school proposals and their deal to rent out some district facilities.

The rest of the uncertainty comes from things like ongoing union negotiations, enrollment figures due to be updated in the coming weeks – and most of all, whether voters approve a series of levy proposals intended to provide funding to offset the drain on the general fund. In the May 7 school election, trustees are set to ask for up to six separate levies: small levies directly to the general fund and larger levies to fund technology and safety and security improvements, each for both the elementary and high school district.

“The surest way to avoid all of these things is to support those levies when you see them on the ballot in May,” said vice-chair Jennifer McKee. “That is how we avoid poring over all of these things – every single thing on that list, every program that's touched by it, every school, all of it, has enormous value.”

Several of the opponents of closing elementary schools said they wanted to see the district give a commitment that schools will not be closed if the levies pass in May.

Helena Public Schools is far from the only school district in Montana dealing with budget shortfalls, as places like Missoula and Bozeman have reported similar issues in the last year. Both leaders and a number of public commenters said they hoped to see the Montana Legislature take another look at the school funding formula in light of these problems.

Also during Tuesday’s meeting, the board got a look at a new long-range plan for district facilities.

“I remember, I think it was in 2022, we brought on our new facilities director, and he asked what our master facility plan looked like,” Weltz said. “At that point we didn't have one, and it was really, we operate off of reaction and knee-jerk decisions, because we didn't have a plan to move forward, we didn't have a roadmap.”

Data in the report showed 13 of 23 school district facilities are “deficient” in building condition, including six elementary schools, C.R. Anderson and Helena Middle Schools, and Helena High, Capital and the Front Street Learning Center that houses the Project for Alternative Learning. Ten were rated deficient for “educational and functional adequacy,” including five elementary schools and Helena Middle School.

The plan lays out some potential options for which schools could be remodeled and which would be in need of replacement. Again, Weltz said this is only a first step and no decisions have been made yet.

“I don't think this is the end of the game for us, trustees,” he said. “This really starts us out into the opening. This starts over, and it really is now an opportunity for us to really roll up our sleeves and find out where we're going to go with our district.”