An increase in Helena property taxes will make up for a lack of adequate state funding and the high cost of some mandated services.
Helena's school board approved two increases Tuesday to pay for special education services and to make updates to school facilities. The increases will cost an estimated $37.12 for a home valued at $200,000 per year and will be assessed when homeowners pay property taxes in November.
State law allows districts to approve certain levies without a vote from taxpayers to pay for mandated services. For example, school districts must provide special education services to all students to ensure a free and appropriate public education, regardless of the cost.
As a result of the 2017 session, the Montana Legislature also allows school districts to use levies to pay for major maintenance projects through local taxpayers.
After the Legislature made a series of cuts to the state’s education budget and shifted some state-funded costs to local taxpayers, Helena Public Schools officials said they had to put forward a levy to fund special education services. A second levy to boost the building reserve account will fund projects like replacing boilers and adding sensor controls to make schools more comfortable for students and staff.
The state eliminated the natural resources and development payment and some general fund block grants and shifted the cost to local taxpayers. In Helena, the loss of $3 million has already been reflected in property tax payments Helena residents made in November 2017.
When state revenues came in lower than projected by the Legislature, legislators approved another $800,000 in cuts over the biennium, according to Janelle Mickelson, the business manager for the school district.
To levy for special education funds, the district is required to go through each student in the district that requires services and calculate the cost to provide those services. The student-by-student evaluation prevents the district from overestimating how much it collects from taxpayers.
“I think it’s important to note these are in-district students,” Mickelson said. “The real concept behind this was the ability to service in-district students here at home rather than sending them somewhere else.”
The district is considering using the funds to set up a program with either Shodair Children’s Hospital or Intermountain to provide all-day services to the most high-need students in the district. Some of the needs are outside of the specialty or training district employees have.
“The needs of the students in some capacity have superseded our ability ... to offer them the appropriate instruction,” Greg Upham, assistant superintendent, said.
The levy for major maintenance projects is restricted to a report completed in 2008. Although the report will be updated in 2019, the district can only do the projects and updates identified a decade ago. Kalli Kind, facilities administrator, said the district will start commissioning boilers in the district and make changes to control temperatures and make sure the boilers are operating efficiently. She said the district will save money in utility costs down the road.
The school board also approved a resolution calling for an election on May 8 to elect three trustees. A voted operational levy will also be on the ballot and, if approved, teachers and para educators will receive a 1.5 percent raise. If it doesn’t pass, teachers and para educators will receive a 0.5 percent pay increase.