Helena Public Schools 2024 Election FAQ

Safety and Security

The work of keeping students safe at school is ongoing and evolving as school districts respond to safety threats that have changed dramatically over the past decade, from cyber threats to gun violence.

Over the past six years, the number of school shootings has spiked dramatically – from fewer than 60 shootings a year between 1966 and 2017, to an average of nearly 212 a year between 2018 and 2023. There were 348 school shootings in the United States last year alone.* We wish we didn’t have to talk about these numbers, but they are the reality we face.

Our district has made great strides in protecting our students and staff. In 2017, Helena voters approved an elementary school bond measure that – in addition to building three new schools – paid for secure, keyless entry systems and other security improvements for our elementary and middle schools. Helena Public Schools is grateful for our community’s help to keep students and staff safe and secure.

However, there is much work ahead.

Voter approval of the Safety & Security Levies would provide for a wide range of facilities improvements. These include everything from classroom window coverings (which can be closed in the event of a security threat), to improved air conditioning (now a necessity because windows and doors must be kept closed and secured during the warm months of spring and fall).

In addition, the levies would pay for updated fire detection and alarm systems and other safety upgrades, such as repair and replacement of playground equipment.

We work closely with our partners in local enforcement every day to keep our schools safe. The levy would provide additional School Resource Officer (SRO) staffing, including security for sports and other extracurriculars.

And because mental health is the foundation of safe and healthy school environments, the levy would fund mental health support programs, mental health response teams, school nurses and counselors.

*Source: Riedman, David (2023), K-12 School Shooting Database


Helena passed its first school technology levy in 2004. It goes without saying that educational technology needs have grown exponentially since those days of overhead projectors and hardcover textbooks.

Today, every Helena Public Schools student does their school work on an iPad or a Chromebook provided and maintained by the district. Mastery of digital technology is essential for almost any career our graduates pursue.

The Technology Levy passed in 2004 continues to provide approximately $1 million a year. Helena Public Schools is grateful for this funding, which enabled the transition from the era of the desktop to today’s world of laptops, WiFi, and artificial intelligence.

However, the technology needed to educate students in today’s classrooms has far out-paced what was required 20 years ago. Today our district spends approximately $2.5 million on technology each year – more than twice the annual levy amount established back in 2004.

Technology funding is urgently needed to enable the district to maintain and replace existing technology and to continue to prepare students for work and life in the 21st century.

Establishing dedicated funding for critical needs

As these critical needs for security and technology have grown, the district has subsidized them out of the General Fund, which is intended for basic operating expenses such as staff salaries, utilities and insurance.

The Technology and Safety and Security levies would create designated funding sources for these evolving needs, taking pressure off the General Fund and helping prevent the deep cuts to staff and student programming seen elsewhere in Montana.

More importantly, it would ensure consistent and appropriate funding for these important needs, providing students with safe places to learn and technology to succeed.

This is a two-part answer, addressing both general fund levies (those that help pay for basic annual operating expenses) and special levies:

General Fund Levies

In Montana, the responsibility for annual school funding is shared by the state and local voters. The model is designed so school districts routinely ask local voters for approval of a portion of their budget – usually every year – with caps in place to protect the taxpayer.

It is by design that school districts repeatedly ask their local voters to cover a portion of their schools’ basic operating costs.

This year the district is seeking a General Fund Levy for its Elementary District (Helena Public Schools is technically made up of two districts, an elementary district and a high school district).

This levy would cost the owner of a $300,000 home an additional $6.24 year (estimated), or approximately 52 cents a month.

Voter approval of the Elementary General Fund Levy would help the district maintain staffing and student programming. Passage of this levy alone would not eliminate the need for reductions in staff and student programming. It would, however, help the district avoid the deepest level of cuts seen in school budgets elsewhere in Montana as districts face a state funding shortfall.  Learn more.

Special Levies

State law also gives schools the authority to seek community support for “special levies” for specific purposes such as safety, technology, building maintenance and construction of new facilities.

These levies are for specific and significant needs that can’t be met with the funding available in a district’s General Fund (the General Fund is intended for regular operating costs such as paying staff salaries, lights, heat and insurance).

Examples include the 10-year Building Reserve Levies passed by Helena voters last year. These levies will pay for care and maintenance of district buildings and grounds over the next decade.

Helena voters last approved a 10-year Building Reserve Levy in 2013 and that levy was set to expire – hence the need to seek voter renewal of funding to care for district facilities.

It’s important to note that monies from special levies, such as the Building Reserve Levy, must be used for their voter-approved purposes. Special levy monies cannot be used to backfill the shortage in the General Fund.

In 2017, Helena voters approved an elementary bond for capital improvements.

The bulk of the bond paid for the construction of three new elementary schools, however the bond also included funding for safety upgrades to elementary and middle school buildings including:

  • Installation of partial secure, keyless entry systems (for elementary and middle schools only).
  • Installation of door buzzers on selected doors at every elementary and middle school. The buzzers sound an alarm any time a door is left open for more than 3 minutes.
  • Installation of additional security cameras. The district still has priority areas for additional cameras and some cameras that need to be replaced for better resolution.

All of the safety upgrades funded by the 2017 bond are now complete.

The Safety & Security levies on the current ballot would fund additional physical safety improvements, such as HVAC systems, window coverings, door lock indicators, fire alarm and suppression systems, and playground equipment. This would include safety improvements for the district’s two high schools, which were not included in the 2017 bond. This also helps fund school nurses, counselors, and those that have direct responsibly for student and staff safety such as front office secretaries and staff who are on the front lines.

The Safety & Security levies would also support the creation of mental health support teams at each school. We know that mental health is one of the most effective tools we have to prevent school violence. In addition, the levies would allow for a new school resource officer (SRO) to be dedicated to the Helena Valley and would help pay for law enforcement at athletic events and other extracurricular activities.

A perfect storm of factors is causing the budget shortfall faced by Montana AA districts: Rising utility costs, fast-changing security and technology needs, soaring healthcare and insurance rates, and inflation that makes virtually everything we do more expensive.

However, state law caps inflationary increases for school districts at 3 percent. This cap, along with other outdated aspects of Montana’s public school funding formula, results in state funding falling far short of the actual cost of operating a school district in 2024.

Montana’s AA districts have cut staff, scaled back student programs and even closed schools. Billings is closing an elementary school. Missoula will lay off up to 100 staff. Kalispell could face a budget deficit of more than $3 million. Bozeman, meanwhile, faces a nearly $3 million shortfall.

The current funding shortfall is more severe than anything our state’s public schools have experienced before.

Helena Public Schools has a strong track record of fiscal responsibility. Our audits are consistently clean. Annual audits look at financial reporting, internal controls and compliance with laws, regulations, contracts, grant agreements and other financial matters.

District Business Administrator Janelle Mickelson is recognized by her peers as a statewide leader in school finance.

All district audits are available on the Helena Public Schools website at https://helenaschools.org/departments/business-finance/

In addition, our 2023-24 Citizens’ Guide to School Finance provides in-depth and reader-friendly information on how tax dollars are spent.

Increased state revenues from property taxes don’t translate to increased funding for our public schools.

That’s because state school funding is determined by a formula that is established in state law. That formula remains the same regardless of how much property tax revenue the state collects through the “95 mills” tax on property.

Nor do schools see a funding increase from other tax revenue windfalls such as coal or cannabis.

That’s it in a nutshell, but if you would like to delve deeper, read on.

This explanation is not 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. Nor is it about the “permissive levies” assessed for needs such as increased school transportation costs. Rather, this is about why the increased property tax revenue collected by the state through the “95 mills” tax does not translate to a windfall for 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.

A food and drink metaphor may be helpful here.

Picture 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.

Our public schools will receive no additional funding as a result of increased property tax collections at the state level.

Yes. Helena Public Schools proactively commissioned a third-party budget and funding analysis in 2017, which forecast a significant shortfall, or “fiscal cliff” 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, the district began directing savings to an “Interlocal” fund,* which is essentially a savings account for future needs. These savings created a financial safety net that was used to offset the budget shortfall for the 2023-24 school year. However, these savings are now largely depleted.

In January 2020, the district began offering retirement incentives for teachers to help address the forecasted General Fund shortfall.

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, causing school disruptions and learning loss for the next two years, and delaying the need for staff and student program reductions as the district received an infusion of federal funding.

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 in two ways:

Safe Return to School

ESSER Funds were used to purchase equipment needed to continue student instruction and to safely reopen schools. This included the purchase of student laptops and wireless access points for families that did not have Internet service. As schools reopened, the ESSER funds were used for cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment (PPE), air filters, hand sanitizer and other pandemic needs.

Closing Pandemic Learning Gaps

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

ESSER Funds were used to provide summer school for K-5 students in 2021 and 2022 to help students catch up on lost learning time, and to provide instructional coaches for every school to help close learning gaps.

In Fall 2023 benchmark testing, the district’s elementary and middle school students held steady, beginning the school year with the same level of knowledge of standards for reading and math as in previous years. The district’s high school juniors once again put Helena Public Schools among the state’s top three AA districts for ACT scores in English Language Arts, Math and Science.

With the end of ESSER funding, Helena Public Schools now employs instructional coaches at title schools only. There is no longer summer school for K-5 students.

* 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 use an Interlocal Fund. At the end of the fiscal year, unspent funds from either district can be directed to the Interlocal Fund. Money in the Interlocal fund can be carried into the next fiscal year and tapped to support needs in either the elementary or the high school district.


Helena Public Schools has shaved approximately $4 million off the budget deficit over the past year through measures including:

  • Leasing of district properties to save utilities and maintenance costs and generate revenue, including the Ray Bjork building and 7th Avenue Gym.
  • Establishing three charter schools. In addition to offering additional education choices for Helena families, the charter schools will bring in additional state basic entitlement funding to help offset the General Fund deficit.
  • Non-replacement of retiring employees and non-renewal of a limited number of non-tenured employee contracts for the 2023-24 school year.
  • Larger class sizes and multi-age classrooms for the 2023-24 school year.

These reductions have helped avoid cuts to staff, student programming and school closures, which may be necessary going forward.

In spring 2023, Helena Public Schools established a committee of stakeholders – parents, students, educators, union representatives, community members and others – to recommend reductions to the Helena Public Schools budget for the upcoming 2024-25 school year.

The committee prepared three sets of recommendations:

  • Best-case scenario: All school levies pass and limited cuts will be required, such as reduced departmental budgets and reductions to some support positions.
  • Middle-case scenario: Some school levies pass and deeper cuts are required, such as reduction or elimination of field trips, larger class sizes and deeper cuts to staff.
  • Worst-case scenario: All school levies fail resulting in the deepest level of cuts, including reductions in staff at all levels and/or cuts to district programs and curriculum.

The stakeholder committee worked diligently to identify areas in which the district can make reductions with the least impact to students.

The district will need to continue to do this exercise each year as variables change and operational costs continue to rise.

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

Please visit https://helenaschools.org/2024election/ to see additional information about the election, levies and ballot language.



Helena Public Schools is dedicated to open and transparent communication around your school district’s budget

A Citizen’s Guide to the Helena Public Schools Budget

Helena Public Schools Financial Reports