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Whitefish Schools enrollment up, district will not seek levy in election

by WHITNEY ENGLAND
Whitefish Pilot | March 16, 2022 1:00 AM

For the third year in a row, the Whitefish School District will not seek a voted levy come May when its time for school elections.

Enrollment in the district has increased, especially in the middle school, and the district predicts it will be able to balance the general fund budget for another year without asking taxpayers for an operating general fund levy. With that, however, the district will add a modest permissive levy to increase funds in the building reserve fund; the increase will have minimal impact on taxpayers, the district notes

At the Whitefish School Board meeting on March 8, the board unanimously approved the recommendation for both levies.

“This is the third year in a row we have balanced the budget without the levy,” Whitefish School District Business Clerk Lucie Shea explained to the board. “And we’re very proud to present a preliminary budget that’s balanced.”

The preliminary numbers show the district’s general fund budget at about $15.6 million which includes an increase of around $512,000 from last year due to increased enrollment in the elementary district. State funding for schools is determined partially by enrollment.

With that increase as well as the nearly $3 million the district has received through different forms of Covid relief funding over the past couple of years, Shea says the district’s general fund is in good shape.

“Even without proposing an operating general fund levy, we are about $110,000 in the black,” she said. “We believe that that is enough money to balance the budget and not to have an operating levy on the ballot in May.”

The district’s preliminary general fund budget breaks down potential increased costs as well as the additional money coming into the fund from the state and potential levies. Increased costs predict there will be a 2% increase in certified teacher salaries as well as a $2 per hour increase for other staff members. It also calculates additional teachers, coaches and other staff needed for next year.

Shea also warned with inflation at an all-time high, costs outside of personnel will also rise for things like curriculum and supplies.

Despite these budget increases, the district’s preliminary budget shows it will have enough money without adding a voter-approved levy.

The permissive levy the district is imposing is important, Shea says.

Because the district no longer receives TIF, tax increment financing, funds from the City of Whitefish as the program ended last year, the non-voted levy will help to increase the building reserve fund. Prior to last year, the district used TIF funds to supplement funding used to maintain facilities.

“The building reserve fund is more important than ever… because the TIF money which was being used for the last 30 years for operations and maintenance and improvements of facilities expired last year. The building reserve fund is important to maintain and grow,” Shea said.

Through an agreement between the school district and the City of Whitefish, the city's tax increment finance district had been providing funds back to the school district until the TIF district ended in 2020.

In the building reserve fund levy, the board approved a $10,080 increase in the elementary district and a $6,940 increase in the high school. Combined, that works out to an annual impact of just under $2 for a home with a taxable value of $500,000 and a little under $3 for a home valued at $750,000.

This is the maximum amount that the district can levy in this fund and is predetermined by the state.

The district states with the building reserve fund, projects that are being worked on currently include classroom carpet replacement, gym ceiling tile replacement, additional cubbies, window coverings, and purchasing a new fork lift and snow plow blade.

Other funds that are subject to permissive levies include adult education, transportation and tuition funds — the district is not increasing the levy in any of these funds this year.

The school election is to be held on Tuesday, May 3 at the Whitefish School District Board Room, 600 East Second Street. Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Though a levy will not be included on the ballot this year, but the election will be to elect two trustees for a three-year term.

The school board will approve the final budget for the 2022-23 school year this summer.