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Voters turn down Three Forks School Levies

(Editor's Note: This article includes information from results posted by the Gallatin County Elections Department on May 8 at 3:43 a.m. The article will be updated when more results are released.)

In unofficial results from the May 7 election, local voters denied two general fund mill levies for the Three Forks School District.

According to unofficial results from the Gallatin County Elections Department, the levy for $504,234 per year in the Elementary District was defeated by a vote of 851 to 465. The levy in the High School District for $176,154 was defeated by a vote of 850 to 458.

In the race for two three-year seats on the Three Forks School Board, Brooke Pestel received the most votes with 538. Leana Eastty was second with 492 votes. Robert Buchholz finished with 449 votes, Travis Short had 432, Hillary Lampers had 146, and Ryan Lampers finished with 127 votes.

BACKGROUND

Due to a projected budget shortfall of $318,234 for the Elementary District and $66,154 for the High School District, the Three Forks Board of Trustees voted to place the two levies on the May 7 ballot in March. The levies would have increased the Three Fork Teacher salary base by 5%.

In May 2020, voters approved a $25 million bond for a building project that added 38,200 square feet to the district campus. According to Three Forks Superintendent Dr. Rhonda Uthlaut, the construction was funded through a bond initiative strictly regulated by the bond language. The funds can only be used for construction and renovation, not operational costs.

Because of the additional square footage and inflation, the district is seeing rising costs in property/liability insurance, health insurance, gas and electric, phone, internet/data, and additional custodial/maintenance/grounds staff.

Uthlaut provided a historical view of some of the more significant increases in operating costs since the school construction began in 2021. The numbers provided are not budget totals but examples of the more substantial increases the district has faced over the past three years.

Examples of rising costs include an additional $67,500 in health insurance, $95,000 in property/liability insurance, $26,800 in phone service, $20,550 in internet/data, $38,240 in custodial/maintenance/grounds, $57,610 in electrical, $13,400 in gas, and $21,200 in fuel costs. The increased salary cost without the Fiscal Year 2025 added in is $264,944 for the Elementary District and $268,993 for the High School District.

The next budget for the Three Forks Schools will not include ESSER Funds, distributed to schools throughout the U.S. to help districts address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Three Forks Schools have used the ESSER funding for a new playground structure, replacement windows for improved ventilation, counseling, and behavior support staff, cleaning supplies and equipment, and summer and Friday programming. The ESSER funds were also used for technology-related items, including clear touch boards, Chromebooks, and networking equipment.

Uthlaut said the district has used the ESSER funding wisely to help offset operational costs, but due to government final funding allotments, it will no longer have this source of revenue.

According to Uthlaut, the district has also been forced to use reserves to cover operation costs.

"This is not sustainable, and the district can no longer operate without either a levy increase or a substantial reduction in staffing and programming," Uthlaut said.

The Three Forks Schools have not passed an operational levy since 2017.

Uthlaut said while many districts have reached their maximum levy capacity with prior increases, Three Forks is currently operating at 87 to 88% levy capacity in both districts.

"While many other districts are forced to cut staff and programs, Three Forks Schools has the option of passing a voted levy that will provide for a balanced budget as well as a modest salary increase that may help retain and recruit quality staff," Uthlaut said.

The combined total of $680,388 for the two levies was well below the maximum allowable levy amount of $867,626.

 
 
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