Jill Valley

(KPAX) School districts across the country are facing a new budget cycle without a big chunk of money that was provided by the federal government to help schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That's just one financial challenge facing not just Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS), but other districts across the state.

While there will be tough decisions to be made in the months ahead about how to pay for everything, MCPS Superintendent Micah Hill tells MTN News the priority is "people over programs."

“We’ve got some unique challenges coming up for MCPS,” Hill said.

Like many school districts in Montana, MCPS is facing a funding deficit — about $1 million, and that's the best-case scenario.

The deficit is due to a combination of things. First is the expiration of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. MCPS got about $5 million of this money to help alleviate learning gaps created by remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“And that money right now is currently used to pay for approximately 70 full-time equivalent employees in our district,” Hill explained. So, those are behavior interventionists, and social workers and a variety of teaching positions. And so when those funds go away there’s nothing to replace that.”

Additionally, property and liability insurance is going up 15% — by $170,000. Meanwhile, utilities are up 20%, and that translates to about $540,000 more this year than last year. And while the state provides a 3% inflationary funding increase for schools, MCPS is expecting at least a 7% increase — if not more.

“And then we have a challenge with declining enrollment in the elementary. Since 2019, we’re down about 400 plus students in our elementary district. And so, when you have declining enrollment; that coupled with ESSER, and then you get a 3% inflationary increase from the state and your inflationary increases are in excess of that, it creates a real storm for the district to try to weather.”

The budget committee is already talking about how to make the money work, where cuts could be made and where they can generate more money. Hill stresses job cuts are the last resort, which was emphasized in a letter sent to MCPS staff last week.

MCPS plans to hold an operational levy election in the Spring. But even if that passes that still won’t fix the $1million shortfall — but it will keep the hole from getting deeper.

“So, one of the things...I don’t want...to project for sure is the sky is falling. It's a challenge. We are going to work our way through it. There isn’t anything that’s not on the table. The best way to say is we are prioritizing keeping everybody employed that we possibly can so that will be the first order of business.