Voters in the Belgrade School District will be asked to approve a $950,000 elementary school operations levy on May 4.

The school board passed a resolution Monday to authorize a mail election for the operations levy, the election of two trustees to three-year terms, and building reserve levies for the high school and elementary districts.

Superintendent Godfrey Saunders said the district last passed an elementary operations levy in 2016 for $106,000. That amount is collected annually from taxpayers. If the $950,000 levy passes, it will increase the current levy by approximately 16.71 mills, amounting to an additional approximate tax increase of $22.55 for homes with tax-assessed values of $100,000 and approximately $45.11 on homes assessed at $200,000.

On Wednesday, Saunders said the increase is necessary because, among other reasons, the wages the district can offer potential employees are not competitive. That has resulted in the district losing employees to other school districts, as well as problems recruiting staff.

“We’ve been trying to hire paraprofessional educators for months. We’re short of bus drivers,” he said. “We’re getting so far behind it’s starting to cost us our talent pool and the number of services we can provide to students.”

“We’re only asking for what we need,” he added, noting that the board is not asking for an increase in the high school operations levy because it isn’t needed.

Also on Monday, the board approved a new two-year contract with the teacher’s union that attempts to address the salary issues. Both Saunders and Human Resources Director John Blackman told the Belgrade News this week that the district is “going out on a limb” by approving the contract before knowing whether the operations levy will pass. If it fails, Blackman said, the district will have to go back to the negotiating table with the union next year to work out a different plan for teacher raises.

This year, Blackman said, the district will be able to cover the change in the pay matrix outlined in the new contract. The salary for all teachers will be raised by $1,000 rather than by 1.5 percent as designated in the previous contract.

The change, approved by 88 percent of Belgrade teachers, was enacted to make raises more equitable for teachers of all experience levels, Blackman said. The previous 1.5 percent raise system meant that teachers on the bottom rung of the pay scale had their pay raised by significantly fewer dollars than those at the top of the pay matrix. And, over time, the system widened the earning gap between top earners, such as teachers with advanced degrees and 20-plus years experience, versus lower earners, such as new teachers who had recently earned their bachelor’s degrees.

That disparity adds to the teacher recruitment problem, Blackman said.

“In order to be competitive, we need to get that salary matrix addressed,” he said.

Last year, the district planned to ask voters for a $700,000 operations levy as well as a $400,000 technology levy for the elementary district. But after the COVID-19 pandemic hit last spring, the district opted not to proceed with the 2020 election because of the economic fallout for many that resulted from the crisis.

Saunders said the district is asking for less than the combined $1.1 million it had planned to seek last year because enrollment has dropped in the elementary district due to the pandemic. The amount of money the district can levy is determined by enrollment.

Saunders said the district’s existing 10-year elementary and high school building levies are expiring and need to renewed. Voters will be asked to increase the existing $350,000 elementary building reserve levy by $150,000 for a total levy amount of $500,000. In the high school district, the district is seeking a $250,000 building reserve levy, an increase of $100,000 over the existing levy. If passed, the resulting tax increases on a $200,000 home in the elementary district will be $7.12 and approximately $4.64 in the high school district.

Saunders said the building reserve funds are used to pay for routine maintenance issues, such as boilers and roofs, so that those expenditures don’t have to be taken from the general fund.

He added he will provide a lot of information to the community about the levy request and district finances before the election in May.

The two school board positions up for election in May are currently held by Mary Ellen Fitzgerald and Frank Stock.