The Three Forks School Board unanimously passed a motion recommending voters approve $640,000 in General Fund drawdowns at their March 15 meeting.
The district will use the funds from this plant tax to increase the salaries of certified and classified personnel, fund new staffing positions created by the build bond project, meet district needs, and perform upgrades or replacements needed.
School districts can only levy a limited amount for their operation. The Three Forks School District could request $661,575 to reach its maximum budget; however, the board only recommended $640,000.
Registered voters will choose to approve or reject this recommendation when it appears on the May ballot.
This tax will increase property taxes in the following ways: $64.15 per year for a $100,000 home, $128.29 per year for a $200,000 home, and $192.44 per year for a $300,000 home. $. This equates to $5.35, $10.69, and $16.04 per month, respectively.
District Clerk Lisa Morgan compared the taxes collected by mills in the Three Forks School District to other nearby districts. This comparison showed that Three Forks’ has average taxes; meanwhile, Belgrade and Manhattan claim the top two most expensive spots.
One of the main reasons discussed for the need for this levy was the district’s ability to pay teachers a living wage and hire additional staff.
According to Superintendent Rhonda Uthlaut, school districts often receive the most job applications in the spring. The school district has historically expected 30 or 40 candidates to apply for a posted position; however, they recently only received six applications for a posted position.
It’s a trend the district has seen over the past nine months.
“The district had to cut bus routes due to the inability to attract additional drivers,” Uthlaut said.
Even though the district announced its need for positions such as bus drivers and guards, it lacked the staff it needed throughout the year. Uthlaut explained that applicants apply to other local businesses and school districts.
“We compete with our neighbors for staff,” Uthlaut said at the school board meeting.
Uthlaut said the shortage of local housing and rising real estate costs make it even more difficult to recruit employees from outside the Three Forks area. Uthlaut also explained that district salaries must keep up with the rising cost of living.
“If we’re going to continue to staff our classrooms and programs with quality staff, we need to take into account the rising cost of living and stay competitive with surrounding districts,” Uthlaut said. “Our staff all work on an annual contract and these salaries must be a living wage.”
To meet staffing needs, the district can use approximately $515,000 of the mill royalty to increase the salaries of current staff and fund various additional staffing positions.
These include hiring new high school and elementary school teachers, hiring an additional member of technology staff, and finding a full-time substitute teacher for an estimated $55. $000 each. The district would also recruit another custodial member, adding $45,000 to the levy request.
These estimated amounts include district costs for salaries, benefits, and deductions.
“We don’t want to build a building and have empty classrooms,” Uthlaut said. “The new building will give us the space to provide necessary courses and additional opportunities for our students. However, these additions increase our operating costs, which incurs a factory tax.”
Additionally, current teacher salaries in the district are not competitive with other jobs in the area. A teacher with minimal experience in the Three Forks School District starts at $34,743 per year or $22.63 per hour. However, Uthlaut said Lowes and other companies advertise starting wages for employees of up to $25 an hour.
“Our challenge here with the board and administration is to try to find ways to stay competitive,” Uthlaut said. “The most important factor in any child’s life will be that teacher. They have a huge impact on the child.”
Another expense facing the Three Forks School District is increased insurance costs. The district could face an estimated 20% increase in health insurance for employees, resulting in a potential increase of $60,000.
Although the Three Forks School Board unanimously chose the highest factory levy option presented at the meeting, some board members shared some concerns.
Uthlaut explained that choosing the cheapest option would not meet all of the district’s needs.
“If you go for a lower amount, it won’t save people much, and we’ll come back and ask people again in a few years,” Uthlaut said.
School board member Joe Petersen expressed concern about asking for more money from the community. Another school board member, Lori Sayers, said the board should take the chance.
You don’t know if you don’t try,” Sayers said.
Although the community approved the building bond project a short time ago, Uthlaut clarified that the district could not use these funds for operating costs.
“The recently passed bond contains specific language that limits the expenditure of funds to identified construction projects only,” Uthlaut said. “Operating costs will inevitably increase due to the additional space with related staffing, custodial, maintenance and utility expenses.”
After a long discussion, the board unanimously approved the motion.
“We have to support our school,” Sayers said.