Multiple trustees on the Helena School Board of Trustees said Tuesday night that the board and district administration plan to move forward with putting another set of building maintenance levies up for vote in coming months.
“I would support moving forward with a new building reserve levy in the fall and pushing our bond back until maybe next spring,” said Cherche Prezeau, vice-chair of the board. “We need to make sure first that our community supports maintaining the buildings we have before we start talking about building new buildings.”
Voters shot down the high school and elementary school district building reserve levies in the May 7 school election.
“It was rather sobering to have the building reserve levy fail. Those really are critical funds that the district uses on a daily basis to maintain our buildings,” said board chair Libby Goldes, explaining that those funds go toward paying for things such as new roofs, flooring, fixing school boilers and meeting other similar needs.
On average, the district’s buildings are 64 years old. The newest building is 36 years old and the oldest is over 100. Through the recent educational planning process, the district has determined that there are some $60 million worth of maintenance projects that need to be dealt with in Helena’s schools.
The maintenance levy issue was not voted on, but only discussed, Goldes said the discussion was meant to indicate to the superintendent what the board members’ feelings are on the matter.
Superintendent of Helena Public Schools Kent Kultgen, Prezeau, Goldes and others in the meeting stressed the importance of communicating with and educating the community about the significance of the building reserve maintenance levies and where the money from the levies would go to if they are passed.
Building maintenance funding
Assistant superintendent Greg Upham explained the difference between the building reserve fund and the district’s operational budget by comparing the two pools of money to two checkbooks.
The first checkbook is the district’s general fund or operational budget, 80 percent of which comes from the state; the other 20 percent comes from local taxes. Each year the amount that local taxpayers contribute to the operational budget can be increased in the form of operational mill levies.
This operational budget pays teachers’ salaries, keeps the schools’ lights on and goes to other day-to-day operational expenses.
The other checkbook, Upham explained, is the building reserve fund, or maintenance fund, which goes toward paying for school repairs and improvements. The building reserve levies are not voted on every year, but assigned multi-year terms. The district’s current building maintenance fund is set to end next year.
“That’s all,” he said. “That’s it. It’s that simple. I think if people think of it this way: An operational fund, that’s your checkbook. The maintenance fund, that’s just a different check book that’s … for when I have to fix the siding and put the roofs on and all that.”
He explained that just like it wouldn’t make sense to use the money you have budgeted for groceries or utilities to pay for major home repairs, it isn’t feasible for the district to dip into its operational budget to pay for school building maintenance.
In fact, doing so could easily lead to programs being cut in Helena’s schools, according to multiple trustees.
“As anyone who has looked at this budget can see, we don’t have any extra general fund money, so if we don’t pass a levy to take care of our buildings, we’re putting every program in our district at risk,” said trustee Ellen Feaver. “Because if we have boilers go down, roofs collapse or huge hail storms that are not covered by insurance entirely or whatever would happen to a building … we would be in the position of cutting programs to create safe space for our students. So I don’t think we have an alternative but, again, to pose a building reserve levy. And we have no business putting a bond issue forward if we can’t take care of the buildings we have.”
Kultgen acknowledged that Central School parents and others will have a host of questions on what these developments will mean for Central School. He said that communicating with and listening to the community will be critical going forward, a point backed up by multiple trustees during the meeting.
“I think we’ve heard loud and clear that the board is completely committed to neighborhood schools,” said trustee Aiden Myhre. “I think every board meeting we hear more and more how committed Helena is to neighborhood schools.”
Kultgen confirmed to the trustees that he would have recommendations to present to the board on how to meet the needs of displaced Central School and Project for Alternative Learning students by the board’s next meeting, which is on May 28.
“The next couple of weeks are really going to tell us where we’re going,” Kultgen said.
During the meeting, the trustees officially accepted the results of the recent election and swore in trustees Goldes, Libbi Lovshin and Betsy Baur, who joined the school board as a trustee for the first time. The board also re-elected Goldes and Prezeau to their seats as board chair and vice-chair, respectively.
The board also gave approval for district administration to take the initial steps in selecting an owner’s representative for the district as the educational planning process moves forward.
The actual hiring of an owner’s representative will not happen until the matter is brought before the board again at a later date, Kim Harris, the district’s business manager explained.
The board also reviewed the district’s budget for the coming year and the impact of the recently approved operational levies and signing of Senate Bill 175 into law.
As a result of those two things, the 2013-2014 Elementary District general fund budget is projected to be $32.84 million and the High School District general fund budget is projected to be $21.8 million. These are increases of 1.82 percent and 3.25 percent over the current year.
The board also approved a resolution to amend the district’s retirement fund budget to cover benefits for the 33 teachers and school administrators retiring this year. The proposed amendment, which will come before the board in its next meeting, would add $400,000 to the district’s retirement fund budget. Once the amendment is adopted in the May 28 meeting, the county and the Office of Public Instruction will increase the budget authority and use reserves to cover the retirement fund costs, if necessary.
The board also honored the two outgoing student representatives on the board, Emily Grinsell of Capital High School and Clare Menahan of Helena High School.
They also honored retiring trustee Michael O’Neil, who has served on the board since 2004.
“I’m going to really miss the passion that you bring to the school board about children, your dedication to Helena Public Schools, the leadership that you’ve provided us through some tough times,” trustee Joe Cohenour told O’Neil during the meeting. “You were there day in, day out leading us. A lot of people don’t realize how much work the school board is. It’s tough. It’s a big commitment, and I do appreciate that and thank you, and I’m sure Helena thanks you also.”