Gallatin High School

Construction at Gallatin High School nears completion. The new school is set to open Aug. 30 for the first day of classes.

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Bozeman property taxpayers can expect to see their school taxes go up roughly 2.7% in the coming year, mainly to cover the costs of opening Bozeman’s second high school.

The school district will need to hire 28 new employees for Gallatin High School — including 18 teachers and 10 custodians. Gallatin High also requires adding six new bus routes.

Mike Waterman, business services director, on Monday gave school board trustees a preliminary look at the coming year’s $53.7 million operating budget.

Details could change by the time the school board meets Aug. 10 to vote on the yearly budget and set tax rates.

Waterman expects the district will have to raise property taxes to $46.9 million, an increase of $2.3 million or 5.2% above this year.

The total value of homes and property in the Bozeman area is expected to increase at least 2% (a figure that probably won’t be released by the state until Aug. 3). That means the tax increase for individual homeowners and business owners would be about 2.7%.

The additional costs to hire more teachers and custodians and run the new high school is expected to exceed $1.5 million. On top of that are the costs of growing student enrollment throughout the 7,111-student district, expected to add about 184 students. And bond payments are just kicking onto the tax rolls this year for the $25 million bond approved by voters for renovating the original Bozeman High.

Even with a tax hike, the school district’s expenses are expected to outstrip revenues by $5.4 million. Waterman called the red ink “alarming.”

The good news is that some cushion is built into the budget – if the winter is mild, there could be savings on utilities and the school district has one-time money it can dip into.

“We do have enough money to cover these shortfalls,” Waterman said. “It’s more a long-term problem we need to correct than ‘the sky is falling.’”

With the opening of Gallatin High, class sizes will at first be smaller and the school district will lose the “economies of scale” that occurred when all teens attended Bozeman High, Waterman said. But as high school enrollment grows, the same number of teachers will be serving more students and it will become more sustainable, he said.

Voters passed a “transition levy” in May to help pay the additional operating costs of running Gallatin High. That can generate up to $1 million a year for six years.

School officials promised voters they’d offset that tax increase by using some of the $4 million left over from the construction budget.

Trustee Wendy Tage asked if there’s any contingency money to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, like extra cleaning costs or extra school buses. The answer is no, Waterman said. Ninety percent of the operating budget pays for salaries for teachers and other employees, and they’ll be needed whether schools are teaching in person or remotely, he said.

The district expects to receive $760,000 from the federal CARES Act for virus relief, though the state Office of Public Instruction hasn’t yet finalized the program.

If the schools have to switch to remote learning and teaching by computer because of the virus, there might be additional costs, though there might also be savings — for example, bus routes would be canceled and fewer substitute teachers hired.

Waterman asked trustees if they would be willing to raise some taxes, like the safety levy and transportation levy, which wouldn’t require a vote by the public, to help cover the costs of remote learning. No one supported the idea.

“If we go back to remote learning,” said trustee Douglas Fischer, “the economy is going to be in a world of hurt. It’s a poor time for a tax increase.”

In the elementary district, school officials expect they’ll need to build elementary school No. 9 in a couple years. Waterman said that school would likely cost $20 million, or $1.2 million a year for bond payments. He suggested the payments could be structured to avoid big jumps and dips in people’s property taxes.

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

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