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Billings administrators eyeing $4 million cuts to elementary schools for 2020-21 year

Superintendent Greg Upham describes how they got here
Posted at 2:36 PM, Nov 13, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-13 16:36:46-05

The Billings elementary school district is expected to be short about $4 million in its general fund for the 2020-21 school year, and the school board will make cuts to balance the budget, Superintendent Greg Upham told Q2 Tuesday.

“We’re talking specifically about the elementary district is where we are running into the deficit issue. The high school is fine and we thank the community for the support of our high school mill levy," Upham said.

Upham has been working with school department leaders to identify cuts that will eliminate the shortfall.

“Beginning last year (2018), for this year (2019-2020), I identified about $800,000 that we implored this year. And then another additional $3 million+ earmarked and are working through it. So roughly $4 million that we are looking to work with.”

Upham said he will release the extent of the cuts in the coming weeks.

The superintendent issued guidance that he wanted to make cuts that had no impact on student safety. That included keeping school resource police officers, social workers and nurses, which are all included in the elementary general fund.

"Number one was that we maintain the safety in the district," Upham said. "I think one of the things the public needs to understand is that the formulas were built to support public education. They didn’t include school resource officers, social workers, nurses, those types of supports that we have in place now that have an impact on the general fund."

Upham also wanted cuts that "stayed away from the classroom." That means reducing some programs rather than eliminating them.

"The overarching component is to look at program reduction versus elimination," Upham said. "If we can do that, I think we’ve done pretty well. I’m going back through with our executive committee and looking at all those cuts. And I'll be sharing that out in the near future.”

The district arrived at this shortfall in part by the construction of two new middle schools, Ben Steele and Medicine Crow, and the hiring of more staff to keep the district's accreditation with the state, upham said.

“What I asked of our chief financial officer was a regressive analysis to see what happened. We could see that the two years prior to the two new middle schools coming on line, in conjunction with the additional acquisition of FTE (full time equivalent) employees (teachers and support personnel) to address accreditation deficiencies was a part of that, in conjunction with the operating expenses of the two middle schools.”

Upham said the Billings elementary schools are being run just as they should. They are at proper capacity, staffing costs are within the norm of peer districts, and there's not a lot of "fat" to trim.

"We’re playing the game like we should be playing the game," Upham said. "I checked in all the garages, there are no Cadillacs. We didn’t buy a million-dollar tractor and put it somewhere."

Upham is frustrated with the way the state currently funds larger school districts. About 80 percent of the elementary schools general fund comes from the state, based on enrollment numbers. The other 20 percent comes from local taxpayers.

"We need the cost index to come in higher, the support from the state to be higher, and we also need our enrollment to continue to grow," Upham said. "We've kind of been a little bit flat, not horribly flat. But if we continue to grow, that will help us along with some of the cuts. But again, in a school budget, there isn't a whole lot of fat, if you will. I have concerns about going into the budget and cutting having a detriment to our students.”

Upham said he isn't placing blame on the state, but questions need to be asked of the state's funding formula. And if it is providing Billings School District 2 with the money it needs.

"But unless we address it and ask those questions, is the formula doing what it needs to do to be able to pride the level of support that schools are being asked to for their students?" Upham said.

"Part of my frustration with what we’re dealing with right now is that we are finally moving the academic dial. ... "And our assessment data is indicative of that. Our teachers are working extremely hard. And our administrators are doing a phenomenal job. So to have to readjust the budget is concerning," Upham said.