Safety levies fail by large margins in Billings | #schoolsaftey

The Billings Public School’s perpetual elementary and high school safety levies were overwhelmingly defeated in Tuesday’s mail-in ballot election.

Votes in favor of the elementary levy came in at 10,094, while 17,787 voted against. Votes in favor of the high school levy ended at 11,446, with 20,229 against. 

At least 95,283 district residents voted, a 37.1% turnout. 

“The root cause of the challenge right now is tax exhaustion,” district Superintendent Erwin Garcia said after the results came in Tuesday night. “We will continue to be creative looking for grants and opportunities to maximize resources, but we’re not going to pursue high ticket items because we can’t afford it.”

The district will regroup, reassess and plans to ask for a safety levy again in the spring. 

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“We’re not going to sacrifice the safety of our students at any cost, so safety continues to be a priority for SD2,” Garcia said. “The safety needs of our kids are not going away. We’re still very vulnerable as a district. We still have lots of resources and technology needs that are related to safety.”  

The budget will be balanced regardless, he said. To do so, the district may reconsider filling some vacant positions as well. 

The levies were prompted by months of school and public safety concerns, responding to gaps in security found by a safety audit School District 2 had conducted by Secure Environment Consultants in the fall 2023 semester.

School District 2 Superintendent Erwin Garcia socializes during a watch party for the Yes for Safe Schools Campaign at a School Election night watch party at Hiland Golf Club Tuesday. The levy ended up failing by a wide margin.

The funds requested by the two safety levies would have combined a variety of hard and soft costs, all directly stemming from the safety audit. Annual costs of the two levies are divided among categories of safety needs with short and long-term goals in mind.

“The report has 58 recommendations,” Garcia said during a board meeting. “All of the recommendations are somehow embedded within the ask for the safety levy.”

With the school district’s already pressing budgetary constraints, the district’s budget committee recommended the levies as a logical step to bridge the gap between the district’s needs and the district’s ideal state.

Although school safety is generally a topic most community members can rally behind, Billings voters have also wearied of footing the bill. With safety needs of students seemingly increasingly falling on taxpayer’s shoulders, they found themselves weighing the safety needs of Billings students against yet another increase in property taxes.

The school safety levies sought $2,488,000 for the elementary district, and $2,519,000 for the high school district from taxpayers.

The combined mill levies would have raised property taxes by approximately $21 per year for every $100,000 in property value. Estimated annual impact on a $300,000 home would be $62.75, and $125.50 for a $600,000 home.

Funds would focus on improvements to and maintenance of school and student safety, including implementation of a gang prevention specialist, a dropout prevention specialist, a safety coordinator, and professional development for staff.

Programs and operational expenses to support school and student safety and security include counselors, nurses, school resource officers, mental health specialists, character development programs and safety supplies.

Installing or updating security-related facility improvements, such as camera systems made up a bulk of the costs, equaling $450,000 for the elementary district, and $300,000 for the high school district. Other technology resources included in the safety levies were intercom and fire alarm repairs and replacements. 

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