Helena Public Schools will have to trim its budget by $500,000 after state revenues came in $75 million lower than projected, which triggered severe cuts for certain agencies.
Legislators passed a bill during the 2017 session to establish a reserve fund for when revenues are lower than projected. But with no money in the fund, shortfalls can only be fixed with program cuts. Legislators and the governor’s office identified which cuts would be made in advance, and when revenues came in lower than projected several months before the end of fiscal year 2017, agencies were told to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
The Office of Public Instruction was one of the agencies hit hardest. Schools will lose $19 million over the next two years to patch holes in the state budget.
In Helena, Superintendent Jack Copps said the district is trying to minimize harm, but will have to make cuts directly affecting student safety and eliminating some special education funding.
The school district was planning to make safety and security updates at both high schools. Copps said an increase of active shooters in schools around the country is changing the way schools prepare for dangerous situations. The most updated procedures call for keyless entry, limited access points into a school and an immediate notification system in case of a lockdown.
“That’s what we wanted to do at the high schools, but there’s no way that’s going to happen now,” Greg Upham, assistant superintendent, said.
The district is also expecting they’ll have to initially reduce funding for special education services. Copps said Helena schools already have an incredible need and have seen a recent influx of students with disabilities.
In May, the school board approved a levy that doesn’t require voter consent to supplement special education funding. Copps said one levy will provide $240,075 for the elementary fund, which will cost $3.40 each year for a person with a home valued at $100,00. A second levy for the high school fund will provide $83,996, which will cost 96 cents per year for a person with a home valued at $100,000.
“Thank God we did that,” Copps said. “What’s happening to special education is shameful. It just seems like it’s getting worse and worse.”
Copps said it’s possible that the district could be forced to approve another levy to provide special education services, which are federally mandated regardless of available resources.
Rep. Nancy Ballance, chair of House Appropriations, told Lee Newspapers on Tuesday that she hadn’t thoroughly reviewed the cuts, but thought they generally matched legislative intent.
She said she was glad the Legislature and governor’s office were willing to make cuts before increasing taxes.
“Broadly, we’re right in line,” she said. “Agencies have been planning on it for quite some time."
In East Helena, Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer said the district has been planning on the cuts, but knowing in advance doesn’t make it easier to trim $36,000 from the budget. It's nearly equivalent to the starting salary of a teacher in East Helena, and Whitmoyer said they are already too tightly staffed to lose anyone.
“Getting teachers in front of children is job one,” he said. “And we can’t cut programs. That’s ridiculous.”
Instead, schools will cut back on instructional materials such as textbooks.
“Is that what cutting government means? You cut the legs out of a program that supports democracy and an educated populace?” Whitmoyer said. “What are you accomplishing by doing that?”
Whitmoyer said the district plans to get new textbooks for a different subject each year. For example, if the district is supposed to get new English books for fall 2017 and new math books for 2018, it will be impossible to catch up. Now students will have to wait two years to get an updated math book, and the existing ones are already several years old.
“The amount of new information is doubling at a ridiculous rate. It’s very important to stay current with our textbooks,” he said. “I’ve watched the way we teach kids in the last 10 years. It’s been exponential growth in the techniques we use to instruct kids while we’re learning so much more about the brain."