Rally kicks off campaign for School District 2 mill levies


David Crisp/Last Best News

Kids show off signs backing a School District 2 mill levy at a campaign kickoff rally on Thursday.

Billings voters in 2013 approved two new middle schools and renovations of two elementary schools in School District 2. Now, school supporters say, it’s time to add more staff.

The Yes for Kids Ballot Initiative Committee kicked off its campaign for passage of a mill levy on Thursday at the Mansfield Health Education Center. Mail-in ballots for the May 3 election are expected to arrive in mailboxes on April 16.

Mayor Tom Hanel, sharing the stage with a handful of children holding signs in support of the levy, told a crowd of about 50 people, “These wonderful children up here are what this is all about.”

The $1.29 million elementary school levy would add 10 support staff, two staff for gifted and talented programs and 12 staff, plus materials, for STEM education: science, technology, engineering and math. The $855,478 high school mill levy would add two staff to expand programs for struggling students, including mental health services; three staff for advanced classes; 4.5 teachers to reduce class sizes; and materials.

Between them, the levies would cost the owner of a home valued at $100,000 an additional $13.31 a year.

Jim and Heidi Duncan, both of Billings Clinic and co-chairmen of the last two mill levy campaigns, handed the reins for this year’s campaign to new co-chairmen who also are part of the medical community: Luke Kobold, director of strategic planning and marketing for Billings Clinic, and Darren Walker, vice president of human resources for St. Vincent Healthcare.

Walker said afterward that he was drawn to the campaign because he has three children in Billings public schools. As an employer, he also relies heavily on the education system to produce well-educated workers.

Adding additional staff will relieve overcrowded classrooms and add rigor to education here, Walker said.

“We’re asking you to say yes to success,” he told the crowd.

Kobold, who has two children in public schools here, said the new staff will include two mental health professionals. One in seven Billings high school students has reported attempting suicide, he said.

New staff also would include three staff members working on college preparation for students, Kobold said.

Bill Cole, chairman-elect of the Billings Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber’s board of directors supports this “modest proposal.” Employees will often make sacrifices in their own lives, he said, but want only the best for their children.

Greg Beals, who teaches chemistry at Senior High School and who is the 2015 Montana Teacher of the Year, said Billings schools need smaller classes, textbooks and teacher training.

“Some of our classes are bursting at the seams,” he said.

Walker said that classes at Senior and West high schools are at about capacity and Skyview High School is over capacity. While Billings voters have rejected some mill levies in recent years, voters in other Montana cities are passing levies year after year, he said.

The key to persuading voters to support this levy, he said, is to make sure that they understand how the money will be used. School District 2 Superintendent Terry Bouck has been good on transparency and on “over delivering” on promises, he said.

Mill levy supporters will gather at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Billings Education Association, 510 N. 29th St., to work on the campaign. To pledge support or volunteer, call 272-3041 or go to www.yesforbillingskids.org.

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