Bozeman High School lets out

A few remaining students head to their buses at the end of the day at Bozeman High School.

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With the economy plunging toward recession because of the coronavirus epidemic, the Bozeman School Board will vote Friday on reducing or eliminating $669,000 in tax hikes on the May 5 ballot.

“The recent coronavirus outbreak has caused significant economic impacts in our community and around the world,” administrators wrote. “Many families are struggling to meet their basic needs at this time.”

If trustees agree, they could reduce or cancel property taxes hike requests in the elementary school district ($305,000) and high school district ($364,000) that were to pay for running schools next year.

However, school officials still plan to ask voters to pass a new tax — a “transition” levy of $1 million a year for up to six years — which they call “most critical” for covering the costs of opening Bozeman’s second high school next fall.

Administrators argue the transition levy wouldn’t mean any increase in people’s tax bills, because the district can use $4 million in savings from the construction project to offset the $1 million transition tax for four years. They’ve also promised voters that if other savings couldn’t be found after that, they’d cancel the final two years of the transition levy.

Trustees have argued they already have money saved in the construction fund, but legally can’t use it where it’s most needed — to pay the costs of operating two high schools, so they’re seeking voters’ approval through the transition levy.

The school board will also vote at the Friday noon special meeting on a formal action plan for coping with the coronavirus school closures.

Gov. Steve Bullock’s emergency orders closing Montana public schools for four weeks require that if schools are to continue receiving state school funds during the closure, they must adopt action plans by Friday’s deadline.

The plans must cover how schools will keep teaching students, providing meals to kids, serving students with disabilities and offering other services, like mental health and homeless student services.

Superintendent Bob Connors said online instruction for Bozeman students is set to begin Monday. Teachers have been working this week, while schools are closed, to prepare both online and paper packets of instruction for kids at home.

Each school is checking out Chromebooks to students who don’t have access to computers this week, and Connors estimated about 4,000 will be distributed. He compared it to distributing textbooks.

Students in special education will continue to get instruction for paraprofessionals and teachers, he said, though they may not get the exact number of minutes of instruction called for in individual education plans.

Connors said as far as he knows there are no cases of coronavirus among Bozeman school employees or students. As of Wednesday evening, Gallatin County had 24 reported cases out of 65 statewide, more than any other county in Montana.

The school board voted March 9 to put the $669,000 in annual tax increases on the ballot to help pay general fund operating costs, like teacher salaries. Asked if losing that money would mean teacher layoffs, Connors said no, the district has some savings and while there could be a reduction in some services, teachers wouldn’t be laid off.

Friday’s special meeting will be held online using the Zoom videoconference service. The public can attend in person at the Willson School boardroom or access the online discussion (by Googling Zoom, typing in ID number 901 515 166, and password 862552).

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.