Friday Update from Superintendent Weltz | December 15, 2023

Dear Families,

The food fight. It’s a classic scene in teen comedies. A French fry takes flight. Catsup splatters, peas scatter. Within seconds the lunchroom is fully involved.

No one escapes without sloppy joes on their shirt or pudding on their pants.

Montana’s public schools are caught in the midst of a metaphorical food fight, a simmering conflict that boiled over when homeowners opened property tax bills that had spiked because of skyrocketing property values. A Montana Free Press analysis found that the median Montana residential property owner will pay approximately 21 percent more on their taxes this year, compared with last year, with most increases ranging between 11 percent and 25 percent.

And unlike those made-for-TV cafeteria calamities, there’s nothing funny about it. Not for homeowners, especially those on fixed incomes. And not for our public schools, which have been falsely accused of both causing the tax hikes and of benefiting from them.

So today I write to set the record straight: Montana school districts will not receive additional funding as a result of increased property tax collections at the state level. Nor will our schools get a boost from any other tax windfall, such as coal or cannabis revenue.

I’m not talking here about taxes collected by the county as a result of local school district levies, such as the Building Reserve and General Fund levies that our community passed last year. These local levies have, of course, increased funding for our district as costs go up for critical needs such as maintaining our school facilities. I’m also not addressing “permissive levies” assessed for needs such as increased school transportation costs.

Rather, this discussion is about taxes that are collected by the state, including the “95 mills” tax that has been at the center of the property tax conflict.

This year the state will see a significant increase in tax revenues from the 95 mills (see more on that below) and other sources as a result of the state’s rapidly rising property values. But the extra revenue won’t be passed on to our schools.

That’s because Montana public schools are funded through a set formula that is established in state law. This formula is based largely on student counts, along with other multipliers. When the state brings in increased tax revenue, these monies simply offset the state’s annual cost for funding school districts.

This is where another food and drink metaphor may be helpful.

Imagine each of Montana’s school districts as a cup. Each cup has a fill line determined by the state’s legally established school funding formula. Every year, the state must fill each cup (school district) with water (funding) to the fill line – no more and no less.

When the state receives larger-than-expected returns, say from property taxes, School Trust Lands, coal revenues or the 95 mills, it simply means there is more money left in state coffers once the school district cups have been filled to their prescribed fill lines for the year.

There is no topping off. And the cups certainly do not overfloweth. In fact, as the cost of meeting today’s educational needs grows, our school funding vessels are starting to look more like Dixie cups than healthy, 8 oz. water glasses. But that’s a topic for another day.

This is, of course, a gross over-simplification of the school funding process, which is notoriously complicated. As I mentioned above, central to the property tax fight is the “95 mill” property tax, which was established in state law to level the funding playing field among school districts across the state.

The Montana Association of Counties recently argued in court that, because of rising property values, charging the full 95 mills would violate the state’s tax cap statute. The Montana School Boards Association opposed the counties’ stance, arguing that failing to levy the full 95 mills would derail the state’s school funding mechanism. The State Supreme Court ruled late last month that counties must levy the full 95 mills.

As the food continues to fly, one fact remains unchanged: Our public schools will receive no additional funding as a result of increased property tax collections at the state level this year or any other windfall.

I hope this helps illustrate that our schools don’t stand to directly gain or lose as a result of the controversy that is playing out over the 95 mills.

Student & Educator Recognitions

Moving on to student and educator recognitions, I would like to congratulate our Bengal and Bruin swim athletes for their outstanding performance at the Butte Invitational Swim Meet. The Helena High and Capital High girls took first and second place respectively, while the boys also dominated, in reverse, with Capital High taking first place and Helena High second. An impressive performance considering that this was the first meet ever for a number of swimmers. Congratulations!

Congratulations are also in order for Central Elementary Third Grade Teacher Jen Jenkins and Helena Middle School Math Teacher Jennifer Mooney, who were named the KMTX Teacher of the Month for October and November. Congratulations, Ms. Jenkins and Ms. Mooney! So well-deserved!

If you’re inclined to do some snacking this weekend, check out the December Wellness Update from our district Wellness Committee. Try out the carrot French fry recipe and you could win a fine dining event for your elementary school. And don’t forget to vote for your favorite recipes as we incorporate Montana-raised bison into the school lunch menu!

We also have more festive performances in store next week as we start the final countdown to Winter Break.

On Monday at noon, the beautiful voices of our high school and middle school choirs will fill the State Capitol Rotunda. If you can’t make the live performance, you can catch the live stream on Facebook @HelenaSchoolDistrict

The Capital High Orchestra will hold its winter concert in the CHS auditorium at 7 p.m. Tuesday. And Four Georgians, Rossiter and Warren elementary schools have winter concerts scheduled Wednesday.

Have a wonderful weekend and enjoy the beauty of the season!


Signature: Rex M. Weltz

Rex M. Weltz, Superintendent
Helena Public Schools