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Billings officials said enrollment stood at about about 16,600 students at the September school board meeting. The count isn’t finalized yet, but it would be a decrease of about 400 students from expectations for this school year.
That could cost Billings a few hundred thousand dollars compared to the planned budget. Schools received two extra pots of COVID-19 relief money, but it can’t be used as straight budget backfill.
The district is already battling a K-8 structural budget deficit; cuts last year and the passage of an elementary general fund levy helped get budget projections in line for this school year.
“This money didn’t just evaporate,” said board chairwoman Greta Besch Moen at the September board meeting. “We took pains and painful cuts to get to this.”
An enrollment drop could complicate that, and not just for Billings.
Montana’s school funding formula ties most state money for schools to a three-year average enrollment. In theory, this accounts for costs that fluctuate with enrollment, like teacher staffing levels. But Melton said that with extra COVID-19 costs, enrollment decreases could have a more profound effect on budgets.
“The formula is not built to account for that,” he said.
MTSBA will bring some legislative proposals during the planned 2021 session to address the issue, including allowing schools to use the greater of their official October or February counts — which would help account for any home school students who come back into districts — or use last year’s count instead of this year’s.