Over the years, tight budgets have led Belgrade School District officials to reluctantly turn a blind eye to building maintenance needs, but the Belgrade School Board is poised to vote on a possible remedy Monday morning.
Trustees are considering asking voters for three separate bond issues next spring to fund a building reserve war chest and to build a new elementary school.
The building reserve would free up the general fund and give the district some breathing room, district clerk Jay Bates said. Currently, all maintenance needs, foreseen or not, are pulled from the general fund, which also funds big-ticket items like payroll expenses and insurance costs.
After digging through the books for the last decade, the district realized it is spending about $500,000 per year on repairs and maintenance, Bates said. And more often than not, problems cannot be fully fixed because of lack of money.
“We put patches on every year, but those patches eventually wind up costing the district $500,000 per year,” he said.
Bates said the track at Belgrade High School epitomizes the district’s struggles.
The top layer of the track is shifting due to use and age, Bates said. Over time, bubbles or rifts poke up, causing racing teens to trip. The only thing the school can do is fix two-foot by two-foot sections at a time, creating a patchwork track, and then “wait for the next hole to fill.”
“We only have enough to fix pieces,” he said. “The general fund can’t fix the whole track.”
But piecemeal maintenance is the name of the game lately, saaid Richard Tramp, district capital projects coordinator. This winter the school plans to replace two roofs at the high school.
“We usually wait until the roof has failed,” he said. “When you do that, that means you have water damage on the inside. Then you end up with problems because you have to remodel the inside and there is possible mold damage. It gets to be thousands of dollars.”
The situation would improve if voters were to approve a building reserve levy, Tramp said.
“We’ve been trying,” he said. “I’ve got three roofs we need to change out and that costs $80,000. But where do you pull that from your general fund? That’s what’s hard because, ‘Okay, now we’re not going to hire a teacher; now we’re not meeting accreditation because we have to replace roofs.’”
The district has more than 500,000 square feet of buildings worth “millions of dollars,” Tramp said. He has actively pursued grants, but he said he feels those days might come to end. With old buildings comes old infrastructure, and updates require money.
“The automation today is incredible,” he said. “I have a $10,000 computer that controls four buildings. I can maintain efficiency without having to check all of the controls.”
The modern equipment, while expensive at the outset, often translates to energy savings in the long run, Tramp said.
“If your classroom is running 75 to 78 degrees, you’d be happy when it’s zero outside,” he said. “But the reality of it, we need that classroom to run somewhere between 68 and 70. And there’s your difference in energy costs by monitoring temperatures in buildings.”
The building reserve would set up a fund to not only cope with nagging repairs, but to free money up in the general fund for education purposes, both Tramp and Bates said.
“We’re not pulling money away from education costs,” Tramp said. “Instead of taking money out of the general fund to do roofs, we actually going to have it there for the kids and their education.”
The current practice of deferred maintenance for buildings is turning into a “perpetual problem” because there is never enough money at the end of the year to do everything that’s needed, trustee Peter Morgan said.
The district has identified a list of capital projects for each school and a building reserve would allow the school to complete construction items “up front, rather than the last minute.”
The building fund would be broken down to $150,000 for the high school district and $350,000 for the elementary district, for a total of 14.08 mills, according to district records. School officials are waiting for final tax numbers from Gallatin County to determine what the idea would cost voters.
Trustees will vote on the planned levies at a special meeting at 7 a.m., Monday in Room 4 of Quaw School.