The Billings community turned out in full force Monday to defend elementary school band and orchestra, gifted and talented program, and early intervention reading counselors from the $4.2 million in cuts the district is expected to make in the elementary schools.
Passionate parents and students took to the podium at the Lincoln Center to share how the proposed cuts, up to 39 full-time positions, would affect their learning.
Emily Tschetter is a senior cellist at Billings West High School who spoke in support of music programs.
"School districts across the state are watching the decision that's made here. If our arts are jeopardized, theirs will likely be too. That will leave thousands of students without the means to peruse their passion. And in my case, if I were entering fifth grade, without the only class I truly felt comfortable in and inspired by," Tschetter said.
Trustees said their ears are open to ideas from the community and that they don't want to make these cuts, but something must be done to balance the budget.
"These are not cuts we want to do. These are not cuts we make lightly," said Board Chair Greta Besch Moen following public comment.
Trustees placed blame on the state legislature and its funding formulas for the Billings schools.
"They are painful cuts and its because we don't have the financial support from the state Legislature to educate our students in the way we want to educate them," Besch Moen said.
The state currently pays for about 80 percent of the Billings schools based on student enrollment. The other 20 percent comes from local taxpayers.
Former Billings School Board Trustee Karen Moses addressed her comment to the members of the audience and trustees. She said the next step to save the elementary budget is to contact local legislators.
"We could overwhelmingly tell our legislators that this community supports this. And not if our program gets cut do we turn against the ones that are fighting to keep these programs,” Moses said.
The Montana Legislature will next meet in 2021, but the issue of school funding has arisen in previous years with little action.