Times are tough for everyone, even for the West Yellowstone school district.

Gas prices continue to soar to nearly $4 a gallon, the price of food is on the rise and inflationary costs are impacting the West Yellowstone school district's budget.

School board trustees and the school administration are faced with the difficult task of devising a budget that will cover yearly costs and expenses for the 2011-2012 school year, while still maintaining a quality education for students in the district.

School board chairman Maggie Anderson, trustee Rachel Burden, district clerk Mary Davis, and school district superintendent Lael Calton attended a special school board meeting Tuesday afternoon to discuss the mill levy for the general school fund. They decided to ask voters to approve a mill levy increase that equates to an additional $60,661.41 for next year's budget. Gayle Archer, Anderson and Burden voted in favor to approve the mill levy increase, with Archer giving her input on the matter and approving vote via telephone.

A decision needed to be reached at the Tuesday meeting so that the request for the mill levy increase can be placed on the ballot for the upcoming May 3 election.

A mill levy is the tax rate applied to a property and is paid by property owners. The school district is asking to raise the additional monies in property taxes, or approximately 6.77 mills for the general operation of the school.

School board trustees agreed to place the mill levy increase request on the ballot for the annual May 3 poll election. The ballot will also include the annual school board trustee election. Trustees are requesting voters to approve the mill levy increase to supply money needed to operate for the 2011-2012 school year.

Under state of Montana budget guidelines the West Yellowstone school district may request a mill levy increase up to a maximum amount of $65,661.41. The administration, Calton noted, is not asking for the maximum allowable increase because they predict they'll receive an additional $5,000 from out-of-district tuition revenues.

"I just think it makes it easier on the taxpayers in the community. We try to do that wherever we can. That's about what we get for tuition annually," Calton said, noting the fees for out-of-district tuition varies every year.

The money for next year's school district budget needs to come from somewhere and trustees have decided that a mill levy increase to support the general fund for the school district is the best route to take, rather than make cuts in existing programs.

The past trustees and administration proposed an increase in the lesser of two different possible levies that could have been placed on the ballot last year by asking for monies to supplement the technology levy, according to Calton.

"The administration and the board at that time felt that it was in the best interest of the community to not ask for an increase in both (areas) due to the economic conditions and that everyone was struggling financially," Calton said. "The administration felt that they could make it with just an increase to the technology fund and that they could give community members and taxpayers a break on requesting additional funds."

That's where the request for an increase in the general fund plays in to this year's election, the request that wasn't on last year's ballot.

Anderson and Calton pointed out that this is only an estimate of what they'll need for next year's budget. The biggest variable is the state education funds that are currently being debated in the Legislature.

Calton is waiting to hear how legislative action will impact final appropriation amounts and how they will be allocated to school districts for the upcoming school year.

The mill levy increase will help accommodate rising operating costs for the school district and salary increases for staff, just to name a few factors that impact the budget.

Retirements this spring could also impact salaries for the next school year. The trustees and administration won't know what the expenses are until they finalize new hiring contracts, which they hope to have established by May, according to Calton.

"The projected budget is based strictly on the current operating costs for the upcoming school year," Anderson noted.

Calton added that this mill levy increase is to acquire the funds needed to maintain existing programs and services to students.

The general fund budget will total $1,806,759.21 without the mill levy increase and will total $1,867,420.62 if passed. This levy increase is based on trustees' projections of what funding will be received for education, but could change based on decisions made in the upcoming Legislative session. The state could also approve a lower funding amount than last year.

Calton indicated she is using the best estimates available to predict what the district will spend on different sections of the budget.

The school district will know the complete figures for next year's budget once the Legislature reaches a decision on education funding for the upcoming year.

West Yellowstone school district residents will have the chance to cast their votes at the election in the school library May 3 from noon to 8 p.m. 

Also on the ballot are the six candidates who've registered to run for two open seats in this year's annual election of school trustees to serve on the West Yellowstone school board. Incumbents in seats up for election are Anderson and Archer. Candidates include Anderson, Archer, Brad Loomis, Sandi Peppler, Chad Ridenour and Brandy Sanders.

The top two vote-getters will fill the two three-year term seats on the school board.

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