As the Montana Legislature heads for the final days of the 2011 session, Bozeman school officials say that state school funding for the next two years is shrinking.
Bozeman school administrators had been planning for a budget shortfall next year of $1.4 million.
But under the only two school funding bills still alive in the Capitol, that shortfall would grow to either $1.5 million or $1.7 million, Steve Johnson, assistant superintendent for business, said at the end of Monday night's Bozeman School Board meeting.
"It's gradually getting worse," Johnson said. "We're below the current year (funding) in every scenario."
In two weeks, the School Board will have to vote on laying off one tenured teacher in Bozeman High School's art department, mainly because fewer students have signed up for art classes next year, he said.
That's one of the 4.7 full-time jobs the district expects to eliminate next year at Bozeman High, largely because the school's enrollment slipped by 39 students, which means a tighter budget. At the same time, enrollment grew in the elementary grades by about 150 students.
Trustees Martha Collins and Sue McGrath said when the state reduces school funding, it means that, either directly or indirectly, it's raising local school taxes.
The two school funding bills still alive in the Legislature are Senate Bill 329 and House Bill 611. If both pass, they'll go to a conference committee to hammer out the differences, Johnson said.
In most sessions, that means compromise, but this year House members have said they won't go any higher, he said.
Despite uncertainty about what legislators will do with school funding, Bozeman school officials have been visiting parent and civic groups to explain the property tax levy on the May 3 ballot.
The ballots are already printed. The good news for school officials is that the maximum tax increases listed on the ballot are "worst-case scenarios," Johnson said, which means they are higher than what would be allowed under the two bills. That means there won't be any money "left on the table," he said, when the School Board sets the final tax levy amounts in August. The School Board can legally charge less than what's listed on the ballot, but not more.
The good news for taxpayers is that under either bill, their maximum tax increase would be less than what's listed on the ballot. For example, for the owner of a house with a state-assessed market value of $100,000, taxes could go up 65 cents a year in the elementary district and 55 cents in the high school district under SB329.
Asked by one member of the public, Bret Niedens, how much taxpayers are already paying in school taxes, Johnson said that the owner of a house with a state-assessed market value of $200,000 is currently paying about $1,054 in all school taxes, of which the Bozeman School District is responsible for levying $623. In the city of Bozeman, all school taxes amount to about 50 percent of the property tax bill.
School Board Chairwoman Denise Hayman introduced Dan Swanson, who filed to seek the trustee seat being vacated by Collins, who represents voters in the rural elementary school districts that send their teenagers to Bozeman High. Swanson filed after the March deadline to run.
Because only three candidates filed to run for the three seats, all three have been elected by acclamation, Johnson said. They are incumbents Gary Lusin and Heide Arneson and Swanson.
Swanson, 54, is patent licensing leader at TechLink. He and his wife, Jackie, a private music teacher, have two children, a daughter in seventh grade at Anderson School and a son in 10th grade at Bozeman High.
Gail Schontzler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2633.