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Students move through the halls and visit their lockers in between classes at Helena High School Wednesday afternoon. (copy)

Students move through the halls and visit their lockers in between classes at Helena High School in this photo from 2017.

A committee on Helena's school board said the district will have to make some tough decisions and possibly eliminate programming if East Helena builds its own high school.

East Helena voters will decide in May whether to approve a $29.5 million bond to build a high school. The board’s budget and program committee met Friday to formally discuss how the East Helena students currently attending high school in Helena would be phased into the East Helena district, and to estimate the potential tax impact on Helena residents.

The state law passed in 2017 allowing a K-8 district to expand stipulates that once a high school is built in the new district, students will gradually start attending the new high school one grade level at a time to spread out the revenue loss for the district the students are leaving. But because the Helena district can’t predict how many students will choose to go to East Helena or opt to stay at Helena High School, planning has been difficult.

Leaders on Friday emphasized they want to be prepared for significant budgetary impacts, but don’t want to scare teachers and students about the possibility of losing employees or programs before it’s necessary.

Helena residents with a home valued at $200,000 pay $767 in taxes to support both the high schools and elementary schools. With the loss of tax revenue currently coming in from East Helena, Helena residents would pay an additional $6.24 a year, according to estimates from Helena business manager Janelle Mickelson.

Although Helena residents will make up some of the difference, there will still be a budget shortfall. The district would lose about $880,000 from its high school budget, based on the assumption that most East Helena students will choose to attend the new high school. There are 354 East Helena students currently enrolled at Helena High. 

“The next step is, what does that mean? What are some potential consequences of that loss of revenue?” Board member Luke Muszkiewicz said. “To me, that’s the only thing I can think of. We will lose some of our signature programs.”

The board plans to spend the next couple of months looking for other ways to cope, and has asked all of the school district's superintendent candidates about how they would handle the transition.

Mickelson stressed that the numbers are estimates and can’t account for every scenario. For example, Mickelson said it’s impossible to know at this point how many East Helena students would still come to Helena High School, or if students from Montana City, who typically come to Helena, would prefer to go to a newly built high school in East Helena.

The East Helena district would pay the Helena district tuition of $1,400 per student still receiving an education in Helena until all grades transition into the new school, and Mickelson said she thinks the toughest decisions would come when those tuition payments end.

“But each year our tuition is going down,” Mickelson said.

Tyler Emmert, a board member, said most of the high school’s budget goes to paying personnel, which leaves a small percentage of room to make changes without trimming programming or faculty. Emmert requested a breakdown of the budgets to better understand how much each program costs.

Terry Beaver, a board member who doesn’t sit on the committee, asked if enough teachers retire each year to avoid laying off staff.

Assistant Superintendent Greg Upham said about 15 full-time equivalents retire or resign each year at the high schools.

“It could ease the pain,” he said. “There’s still going to need to be some significant planning.”

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Education / Business Reporter

Education and Business Reporter for The Independent Record.

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