Friday Message from Superintendent Weltz | March 24, 2023

Dear Helena Public Schools Families and Staff,

Our Helena Public Schools have rich and deep roots in this valley, starting soon after the Four Georgians found gold in Last Chance Gulch.

One of our most famous Helena forefathers and entrepreneurs, Col. Charles A. Broadwater, is most often associated with the luxurious Hotel Broadwater and Natatorium.

While the resort is long gone, Col. Broadwater’s legacy lives on in Broadwater Elementary School, which was established on land purchased from his estate in 1893. The school remains on the site of the original brick and stone school building.

Today Broadwater Elementary celebrated its 130th Anniversary, with dozens of alumni, former staff and community members gathered to honor their beloved school. Festivities included a walking history tour celebrating each of the 13 decades that the school has served Helena children.

Fifth-grade music students premiered a percussion piece written by Helena Public Schools Music Teacher Sarah Dramstad. A former Broadwater Cub, she wrote the piece in honor of her elementary alma mater. Meanwhile, kindergartners in Broadwater Music Teacher Jennifer Skogley’s class re-created the 1936 Broadwater Elementary Rhythm Band, complete with adorable pillbox hats. You’ll find a photo of the original band as well as other historical treasures on the Broadwater 130th Anniversary Facebook page.

Watch a recording of today’s celebration on our Helena Public Schools Facebook page.

A big thank you to Broadwater Elementary Montessori Teacher and history buff Jodi Delaney, Broadwater Music teacher Jennifer Skogley, Principal Kellie Boedecker and the many others who put hours of historical research, costume making, rehearsal and planning into today’s celebration.

Happy Birthday Broadwater Cubs!

CR Anderson biology teacher is Presidential Award state-level finalist

Last week I was honored to announce that our very own Capital High School Science Teacher Sarah Urban has been selected as a Montana state-level finalist for a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Ms. Urban is one of only six educators statewide who were chosen for this prestigious award.

This week, we learned that another of our own is among this elite group – CR Anderson Middle School Biology Teacher Megan Lane. Ms. Urban and Ms. Lane are now in the running to be selected as national awardees, which is the country’s highest honor for teachers of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

Our Trustees and administrative team visited CRA this week for a Board of Trustees work session and found Ms. Lane and her students busy dissecting crayfish as part of a unit on comparative anatomy. Her student teams of twos and threes were laser-focused as they wielded their scalpels.

These are the innovative, engaging learning opportunities that we value in our Helena Public Schools. Congratulations, Ms. Urban and Ms. Lane, and best of luck!

Ray Bjork Learning Center building to close, programs to continue

Several significant steps were taken this week on the budget reduction front. On Monday, my team met with staff based at the Ray Bjork Learning Center (RBLC) building, whose programs will be relocated next year.

A former elementary school, the Ray Bjork building has long been home to five district programs:

  • Head Start
  • Special Education Pre-School
  • Trailhead: A program for students in need of additional behavioral and academic support
  • TLC (Therapeutic Learning Center): A partnership with Shodair Children’s Hospital for students needing intensive emotional and behavioral support
  • PEAK Gifted & Talented Program

If you’re at all familiar with RBLC and its programs, you know that the work done every day within its walls is phenomenal. Under the leadership of Principal Erin Maxwell, the tight-knit, supportive staff works together to meet some of our community’s most challenging educational needs.

Unfortunately, we could no longer justify the cost of operating the Ray Bjork building while space for the programs housed there is available in other district facilities. We’ll share details as soon as possible on new locations for the programs, which will continue to serve our students.

Classroom adjustments

Another cost savings initiative has been utilizing staff attrition as well as non-renewals of some non-tenured staff. The result is fewer staff, which means larger class sizes for the 2023-24 school year and beyond. Your principal will communicate details on potential changes at your school in the coming weeks.

A look ahead

These are significant changes, and they directly affect students and families. That’s why I want to share a bit of context on the budget shortfall, as well as a look at what to expect over the next 18 months.

The budget reduction work is being done in two phases:

Phase 1, which is now almost complete, is focused on cost reductions needed for the district to remain solvent for the 2023-24 school year– meaning the district will be able to pay salaries next year, as well as bills for operational needs such as water, gas and electricity. The relocation of RBLC programs as well as staff reductions through attrition and non-renewals were part of this process.

Phase 2 will focus on reductions needed for the district to remain solvent for the 2024-25 school year. This is where the biggest adjustments will be needed. Leading this work will be a Budget Recommendation Consensus Committee comprised of approximately 30 representatives of stakeholder groups such as trustees, parents, community members, certified and classified staff, students, building and central office administration, and community and business leaders.

The Committee will be assembled this spring and will work over the course of the next year to develop balanced budget options for the 2024-25 school year. The results of a community budget survey conducted earlier this year as well as the finalized Master Facilities Plan, which is now being developed, will support the committee’s work.

How big is the shortfall and how did we get here?

As we work to address the budget shortfall you may be wondering how we arrived at this point. In a few words, our public school funding mechanisms no longer keep up with expenses.

When you subtract the district’s expenses from available funding for the 2023-24 school year, for example, Helena Public Schools faces a forecasted shortage of approximately $6 million – that’s after factoring in inflationary adjustments approved by the Montana Legislature earlier this month.

The inflationary adjustments were 2.7 percent and 3 percent respectively for the next two fiscal years. (State law caps inflationary increases for school districts at 3 percent.)

To provide further context, here’s what just some of our real-world cost increases look like for the 2023-24 school year:

Electricity: Up 17 percent
Natural Gas: Up 46 percent
Water, sewer and garbage: Up 5 percent
Property and liability insurance: Up 15 percent
Custodial supplies: Up 30 percent

Meanwhile, the district has significant increases in safety and technology needs that will need to be addressed through future levies.

Another significant factor in the budget shortfall is a gap between the cost of special education services and federal funding. We’ll be exploring options for seeking federal funding that more accurately reflects costs.

That said, I want to be extremely clear that that the school funding shortfall is not a problem of special education students nor any other group. It is a problem with how schools are funded at the local, state and federal level across our nation. We will continue to work in cooperation with the Coalition of Advocates for Montana’s Public Schools to address these needs.

And, as always, we’ll continue to put the education and well-being of our students first.

In closing, I wish you and your family a wonderful Spring Break. More snow is on the way but, if you look closely, you’ll find shoots of green here and there. I hope you’re able to get outside and find new energy in the changing of the seasons.


Signature: Rex M. Weltz

Rex Weltz

Learn more about school finance in the “Citizen’s Guide to the Helena School District 2022-23 Budget.”

Helena Public Schools Budget Shortfall and Budget Reduction Timeline

2017: Helena Public Schools commissioned a budget and funding analysis, which forecast a significant shortfall in the district’s General Fund – the fund that pays for people and operations. A more detailed report was prepared the following year.

In anticipation of the projected budget shortfall Helena Public Schools began directing savings to an “Interlocal” fund* for future needs. These savings created a financial safety net of one-time monies that will now be used to offset the projected shortfall in the 2023-24 school year.

January 2020: Helena Public Schools began offering retirement incentives to help address the forecasted General Fund shortfall.

March 2020: The COVID-19 pandemic arrived, causing school disruptions and learning loss for the next two years. Helena Public Schools received roughly $20 million in federal relief funds (ESSER funds) over the course of the pandemic. These monies were used as intended to reopen schools, provide summer school in 2021 and 2022, and provide instructional coaches to help close learning gaps.

ESSER funds allowed the district to sustain staffing and programming levels longer than anticipated, helping with students’ academic recovery.

Spring 2023: Helena Public Schools announced the beginning of a two-year, two-phase process to balance the district’s budget.

Phase 1
Adjustments needed to make the district solvent for the 2023-24 school year include:

  • Non-replacement of retiring employees and non-renewal of a limited number of non-tenured employee contracts.
  • Relocation of programs currently housed at the Ray Bjork Learning Center.
  • Larger class sizes for the 2023-24 school year and beyond.

Phase 2
A Consensus Recommendation Committee will work throughout the next year to make recommendations for a balanced budget for the 2024-25 school year. The committee, to be assembled this spring, will consist of trustees, parents, community members, certified and classified staff, students, building and central office administration, and community and business leaders.

The Board of Trustees will adopt a 2024-25 budget in August 2024.

Learn more about school finance in the “Citizen’s Guide to the Helena School District 2022-23 Budget.”

* School districts such as Helena Public Schools, which is technically comprised of two districts – one elementary district (K-8) and one high school district (9-12) – may direct savings from either district to an “Interlocal” savings fund.  Money in the Interlocal fund can then be tapped to support needs in either the elementary or the high school district.