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The Bozeman School Board agreed Friday to cancel two of three tax-raising requests on the May 5 ballot because of the economic pain facing taxpayers from the coronavirus epidemic shutting down the nation’s economy.

Trustees also voted unanimously to cancel bus routes for two more weeks, despite protests from some drivers upset that they won’t get paid for four weeks and warnings that Bozeman schools may not have enough drivers if schools do reopen.

And the school board approved Bozeman school leaders’ plan to keep teaching and taking care of kids, despite the school shutdown forced by the coronavirus outbreak. Friday was the deadline for school districts to send plans to the governor’s office if they are to keep receiving state funds while schools remain closed, part of the effort to keep the virus from spreading.

As part of its response to the virus, the school district this week began offering free sack lunches and breakfasts every day to students at Bozeman High and Irving Elementary School. To help comply with the governor’s stay-at-home order, next week meals will be available on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and families can pick up two days’ worth of food at a time. Kids will no longer have to be present in the car or with parents to receive the meals and no ID is required.

Marilyn King, deputy superintendent for instruction, gave an overview of the work teachers and principals have been doing this week so lessons can be offered online or by paper packets starting next Monday.

“Our teachers have been literally busting their butts this week,” said Steve Johnson, deputy superintendent for business and operations. “They’re working very hard.”

Earlier this month the school board had agreed to ask voters to OK two tax increases totaling $669,000 to help the elementary schools and high school cover the regular costs of paying teachers, light bills and the like.

But in the face of the virus pandemic, hundreds of businesses have closed, many people have lost their jobs and unemployment insurance applications have skyrocketed.

“Given today’s climate and circumstances, it makes an immense amount of sense” to cancel those two tax requests, said Trustee Tanya Reinhardt.

Johnson recommended removing the two general fund tax levy increases, but keeping a third tax request. It will ask voters to OK a $1 million-per-year “transition levy,” a new property tax, for up to six years to help pay for operating Bozeman’s second high school this fall.

Johnson said it would actually mean a zero tax increase, because school officials are promising to use $4 million — interest earned from the school construction bonds — to reduce property taxes by $1 million a year and thus offset the transition levy. School officials argue they have the money needed, but legally can’t spend dollars that voters OK’d for construction on the general costs of running the schools.

“It’s more important than ever to have the transition levy,” Trustee Heide Arneson said. Without it, she said there would have to be cuts in programs at the two high schools.

Also on the May 5 school ballot will be three candidates competing for two school board seats — incumbent Greg Neil and newcomers Kevin Black and Brian Page, who filed to be a candidate on the last day.

The school board voted 7-0 to cancel school bus routes for two more weeks, through April 10. It means the school district won’t pay contractor First Student for a total of four weeks, saving taxpayers about $12,000 a day. Bus drivers protested that many would have to find other jobs, rather than go weeks without pay.

The reason, said Mike Waterman, school business services director, is “our taxpayers are not paying for services they’re not receiving.”

However, Waterman said he’s started negotiations with First Student and has asked the company how much it would take just to pay local drivers and bus employees — not cover company profits or insurance. He said he hasn’t heard back yet.

Trustee Douglas Fischer voted for canceling bus routes, but pointed out that the savings for taxpayers would be small, while the impact on drivers was huge.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 582-2633.