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Increased school levies back on the ballot

Members of the Three Forks School District Board of Trustees are once again approaching voters this May with a request for more funds.

The proposed levy will increase district revenue by $674,000, broken down to $385,350 for the elementary school and $288,650 for the high school. The levy is expected to raise taxes by a total of $64.65 for a $100,000 home and $128.30 for a $200,000.

Motivation for the mill levy, District Superintendent Rhonda Uthlaut said, is the district's rising expenses and facility expansion.

"We're going to shortfall eventually if we don't get a mill levy passed," District Superintended Rhonda Uthlaut said. "There's just been so much inflation and rising costs, that districts are struggling."

With an additional 32,800 square feet, the district now faces higher operating costs she explained. These include higher insurance, the need for more custodians and a larger utility bill. Cost estimates, Uthlaut said, were used to calculate the levy amount.

Uthlaut added that with more funds, the district could increase staff wages and remain competitive with other nearby school districts.

Three Forks School District currently levies 88% of its maximum allowable budget, while surrounding districts levy 100% and continue to cut programs and lay off staff, according to Uthlaut. Regardless, the board is not requesting the maximum budget from voters.

Instead, Uthlaut explained, the district is only asking for what it needs to give the kids "what they need." This includes providing students with an array of classes and programs that will prepare them for graduation.

"We want our kids college and career ready when they leave here," she commented, explains that this is possible through more classes.

A student survey showed that students want access to more challenging courses such as physics, chemistry, advanced placement classes and a theater program. None of which, Uthlaut said, were "frivolous" requests.

Although the school expansion provides room for more programs, there's another element missing, Uthlaut said: staff.

"We have classrooms ready for children, but we have to hire more staff for those," she noted.

The Three Forks School District has served as a "hub of the community" Uthlaut said, adding that something is always going on inside the building. Continuing to make the building available for community use, Uthlaut explained, comes with a cost.

"I think Three Forks offers so much to our kids and community," she said. "We need that support to keep it going."

The expiration of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds also encouraged the board's decision for a levy bump. ESSR Funds were distributed to schools throughout the U.S. to help districts address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Those funds, Uthlaut said, have strict spending requirements and will run out at the end of the 2023-24 school year.

"It's given us a great boost," she said.

So far, Three Forks Schools have utilized ESSR funds to sustain Friday school, summer programs and behavioral support. Funds allocated for next school year, Uthlaut added, have already been earmarked for projects such as old window replacements.

The district has also tapped into its interlocal fund - a collection of surplus funds for school use - but that non-renewing account, Uthlaut said, is not a sustainable source of money.

Uthlaut also clarified that money received from the bond project, can only be used for "brick and mortar," not for operational costs.

It's been six years since voters approved a levy increase for the Three Forks School District. Despite going longer than most other schools, according to Uthlaut, the district has held on for one reason: fiscal responsibility.

"Three Forks has done an amazing job of being good stewards of our dollars," she commented. "We've used our tax money wisely."

The school board also approved some increase - and some decreases - in the district's permissive levies, which do not require voter approval. In total, Three Forks Elementary School's permissive levies will increases by $14,382 or 0.55 mills; meanwhile, the high school's permissive levies will rise by $16,471 or 1.5 mills. In both instances, the raised levies resulted from higher anticipated transportation costs.

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