MCPS administration building

As Montana legislators continue to battle over K-12 funding and looming cuts, Missoula County Public Schools is predicting what next year's budget could look like.

MCPS trustees unanimously approved two elections this spring for voters to consider increases to the elementary and high school general funds through operational levy increases.

While the amounts are not set yet, executive director of business and operations Pat McHugh introduced his projections to the board Tuesday night: a potential $935,031 increase to the elementary general fund in 2017-2018, and a $404,963 increase to the high school general fund.

"Based upon some of the legislation in place, where budgets look within the school funding formula, I think this will be the year a levy in both districts will be appropriate," McHugh said.

MCPS hasn't run an operational levy in the elementary district since 2014-2015, and in the high school district since 2012-2013. 

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In his proposed budget, Gov. Steve Bullock called for $21 million in education cuts over the next biennium.

House Bill 191 – inflationary increases to direct state aid and entitlement funding for schools, required by statute – passed last week. The bill still needs to make it through the Senate to reach the governor.

House Republicans applauded HB 191's passage.

“The Republican caucus is dedicated to funding K-12 education and funding it early to give school boards time to plan their school year,” Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen said in a statement.

It comes amid a partisan battle over future cuts to K-12 education – and who's doing the cutting.

Earlier this month, a Republican-led budget panel voted to accept Bullock's proposed cuts, and increase them to nearly $24 million.

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McHugh based his projections on enrollment estimates and Bullock's budget proposal, taking into account the potential elimination of Data for Achievement and Natural Resource Development payments, which would represent a loss of about $650,000 to MCPS.

These payments are part of the state school funding formula that calculates districts' base budgets. By pulling them out of the equation, "what you end up doing is lowering the base budget for all schools," McHugh said.

"Your ultimate budget authority drops by those amounts," he said of the dollar loss from cutting those two payments.

Without running the levy, the estimated elementary general fund would increase 1.39 percent over the current school year to $37,486,838. On the high school side, it would increase 0.98 percent to $29,373,416.

With these potential levies, the elementary general fund budget would increase 3.79 percent, and the high school 2.33 percent.

Add salary and benefit increases, as well as other anticipated obligations and without running a levy, the elementary general fund would be under zero-balance by $481,935.

With the maximum levy, it would be above by $453,096 – which means the district would not run the maximum levy, McHugh said, as they want that final balance to be zero.

On the high school side, both with and without the levy, the general fund would be under – by $81,591 and $486,554, respectively.

Trustee Jennifer Newbold wondered how much predictability MCPS can expect as the Legislature works through the funding bill so school districts can start planning budgets.

"They're moving along very well," McHugh said. "Certainly that's been an issue in the past."

The Senate Education and Cultural Resources committee is scheduled to take up HB 191 on Jan. 30. It then goes to Bullock. Ballots must be certified by March 31.

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Reporter for the Missoulian