Shrinking revenues may prompt Lockwood mill levy request

by Evelyn Pyburn- Originally published in the Yellowstone County News on 11/18/16.

LOCKWOOD — The Lockwood School Board of Trustees is facing the prospect of asking for a mill levy increase for next year’s budget.

Because of continued enrollment declines, Lockwood School faces a $75,000 budget shortfall for next year, reported School Clerk Laurie Noonkester during the board’s meeting last week.

The shortfall involves being short by $75,000 of covering the same size budget as this year. It does not consider any increases in the budget, including “moving just one step” in the teachers’ pay grid, which adds $69,000 to the budget – and not including an increase in pay for the para professionals and administration.

The highest increase in revenue the district can have with a vote of the electorate is $288,000. The district will most likely need all that, according to Noonkester, who said that without the voter approved levy, “the cuts would be dramatic and painful.”

Other additional budget increases expected for next year include:

The school pays $1.5 million for health insurance and is expecting a 5 to 10 percent increase in premiums – an increase of $75,000. And, that does not include any increases in coverage such as the addition of family members.

Based upon current taxable value numbers, such a proposed mill levy increase would increase taxes on a $100,000 by $16.17 and on a $200,000 home, $32.35. The overall total tax for the school district on a $100,000 home would be $89.50.

Some positive changes that might mitigate some of the cost would be an increase in the taxable property value for the district, which usually runs at about 3 percent.

And, enrollment could still increase, which would increase the school’s ANB revenues (Annual Number Belonging) from the state. And, what the Legislature might do that could help the situation is still unknown.

Lockwood’s levy is currently at about the same level as two years ago, said Superintendent Tobin Novasio.

Lockwood has not requested a general mill levy increase for seven or eight years.

“We have cut down to such a low level it is hard to adjust,” said Novasio. There may be reduced class sizes enough that a couple of teacher positions might be cut, he said.

Next year, Peterbilt is supposed to come off abatement program, said Novasio. That doesn’t really help the school, but it does help the taxpayer, explained Novasio. It broadens the tax base, so that what each taxpayer must pay will decrease.

“Schools don’t get increases as mill values go up,” emphasized Novasio, saying that that is a common misconception taxpayers have.

While a tax settlement between Northwestern Energy and the state allowed Lockwood School District to increase and recertify its mill levy in order to still obtain the same amount of revenue, they will not get that revenue increase until next year, said Noonkester.

“For years we haven’t wanted to ask taxpayers for an increase,” said Novasio. “That is why it is $75,000 down,”

“We have an obligation as trustees to let the taxpayers know,” said board member Teresa Stroebe.

The board took no action on Noonkester’s report, which at this time was only for informational purposes.

Chairman Tim Sather said that he believes that some of Lockwood’s student losses are because of redistricting. Parents are moving so their kids can go to the high schools of their choice.

Novasio said that there are two pending negotiations with unions, the teachers’ and the paraprofessionals.’ He said that he is hoping to have a “memorandum of understanding” with the unions to keep the contract language the same, “and to push negotiations off until next year.”

The kindergarten readiness program is one program that might have to go “by the wayside,” said Novasio, but that would be for next year. The board approved continuing the program, which has proven to be very popular, for this year because it was already in the budget.

It was pointed out that long-term, the kindergarten readiness program saves money because it keeps kids out of intervention programs down the road. “Parents are asking for it,” said Novasio.

The board approved a contract with a drug and alcohol counselor who works through the Rimrock Foundation. The counselor will provide drug and alcohol counseling through Medicaid and family insurance in direct agreement with a child’s parents. There is no cost to the school district. The district will provide office space, phone, Internet and access to students.

Novasio said that there is a huge need for such services, and they can monitor how it goes the first year and revisit the contract terms next year, to see if there needs to be any changes.

Lockwood School board member Michelle Gomez has resigned her relatively new position on the board, in order to accept a job offer in Helena. The board is seeking applications from persons interested in completing her term. They will name a replacement at the December board meeting.

Town Pump Charitable Foundation donated $5,000 to the Lockwood Meals for Backpacks program.