The Bozeman Public Schools are expecting a record school year, with enrollment anticipated to exceed 7,000 students for the first time and a new spending record of $95.4 million.

The School Board voted unanimously Monday night to approve budgets for the elementary and high school districts, spending plans that are 2.9% bigger than last year’s.

To educate more students, hire more staff and cover pay raises, the school district plans to spend $1.4 million more than last year. That means a 3.4% increase in local property taxes to raise $44.6 million.

“We’re really excited about it,” Superintendent Bob Connors said after trustees approved the budgets. Connors pointed out that 90% of Bozeman school budgets go into salaries and employee benefits. “As the new guy coming in, that’s pretty impressive that it’s only 90%. A lot of districts are in worse shape.”

Trustees also voted to set the property tax rate at 218.67 mills, or 13% lower than last year’s 251.58 mills. That decrease will offset much of the 19% jump in the total value of all homes and businesses located within the school district, as determined by the state’s recent two-year property reappraisal.

Whether homeowners’ individual school taxes are going up or down really will change from person to person, depending on whether their home’s value increased faster than average, or less than their neighbor’s, said Mike Waterman, school business services director.

About 4% of the 19% jump in property value is due to new construction of houses, hotels and developments like the Stadium View student apartment complex south of the Montana State University campus, Waterman said. That development didn’t exist a few years ago and now it’s the No. 5 taxpayer on the school district’s top 10 list, he said.

The remaining 15% increase is the average that existing homes and businesses have inflated in value, Waterman said.

“We’re going to raise more money, but we’ve got more property value to spread it over,” he said.

School Board Chair Andy Willett agreed, saying the school district’s property taxes are going up only 3.4%, while new construction has added 4% to the tax base.

That’s “awesome,” Willett said.

Overall the school district’s finances remain “very healthy,” Waterman wrote in a 23-page budget summary. Steve Johnson, deputy superintendent, said reports like that have won awards and show the school district’s commitment to transparency.

Moody’s financial bond rating company just reviewed the school district’s finances as the district gets ready to sell $25 million in bonds next month to pay for renovating Bozeman High School. Moody’s reaffirmed the Aa2 risk rating, the highest of any school district in Montana, based on Bozeman’s growth and MSU’s stabilizing impact on the economy, Waterman said.

Instruction is the biggest single expense in the school budgets, taking up $41.4 million or 43%. Next is $17.6 million to pay off construction debts for new and renovated schools.

The building reserve fund, more than $10.4 million, now pays for both traditional major building maintenance and for new costs for improving school safety. That fund will pay for the police officers stationed in the schools and for four safety specialists who will work with students on social and emotional issues.

While local taxpayers pay the most for school costs (47%), the state contributes the next biggest chunk, $31.4 million (33%).

The elementary district is spending more than it’s taking in, Waterman said, while the high school district this year has about $450,000 extra. That will help next year when the second high school opens. That’s expected to require up to $2 million a year in new expenses, so the district will likely ask voters to OK a six-year “transition” tax levy of nearly $1 million a year.

Bozeman’s student enrollment has grown 28% in the past 10 years. Exact numbers won’t be known until October, but school officials predict that enrollment will grow from last year’s 6,995 students to 7,151 this coming fall.

The budget calls for hiring 21 new staff members, including 10.5 new teachers, six clerks or classified employees, and four special education specialists.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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