The Billings Outpost

Schools plan for future

Story and photo - By JENNIFER MOLK - For The Outpost

School District 2 officials are finalizing a comprehensive maintenance facilities plan, officially titled the Facilities Master Plan.

Public meetings and workshops began in September of last year, and all who have had a hand in preparing the plan and selling it to parents, staff and voters are hoping the community will climb on board to ultimately see new schools built to mitigate overcrowding.

The District hired a local architectural firm, O2A, along with a national architectural firm that specializes in schools, DLR Group.

Parents, staff and students have been encouraged to attend the meetings and provide feedback and suggestions and participate in surveys generated by DLR Group.

“We spent the last seven months planning, securing input from our staff, our parents, our community, trying to build a plan that mirrors what people want,” said Terry Bouck, SD2 superintendent. “Where we’re at right now – we’re trying to, as a board, come to consensus on what type of a bond plan we start out with.”

In the end, with the help with the voting public, officials hope to acquire the funding to maintain its buildings, ease overcrowding and keep up with technology.

“Facility Master Planning is a process which many, many districts do,” Mr. Bouck explained, “and the reason why they do it is they need to begin a cycle of maintaining their buildings dealing with educational adequacy and equity throughout the district.”

In other words: having fairly standardized buildings, so no matter where a student is educated, the learning environment is equally distributed from east to west, north to south. That includes technology, the size of the library, lunch rooms and gyms, equally distributed from school to school.

In addition, deferred maintenance issues have topped the $100 million mark.

“So you’re trying to put together a systematic way to approach maintenance, to approach, in our case, the accreditation issue where our classrooms are overloaded,” Mr. Bouck further explained. “At the elementary level, 90 classes are over the accreditation standard.”

The Master Facilities Plan has been over a year in the making.

“The board took a very focused approach before I got here,” Mr. Bouck recalled, “and actually when I got hired, they brought me back in May to take a look at the consultants that were being considered for master planning. So they let me have input. So I would give kudos to the board for getting this process started. It’s been seven months of hard work.”

Voters will likely be asked to help fund this project.

“The first thing we’re going to run, and I’ve already gotten approval to move forward by the board, is a levy in May,” Mr. Bouck said. “That levy will be focused specifically on hiring new teachers to mitigate our accreditation issue. If we don’t pass a levy then, then we can’t move forward with the bond (in September). You try to get a systematic way where you’re able to have a series of bonds over the years without having spikes in taxation so you’re trying really to have a way to have quality schools at a reasonable tax level.”

The price tag for this venture?

“We’re probably looking at about a $1.1 million levy,” Mr. Bouck said, “which I believe is about a $1.15 per month for a $200,000 house. And that would be directly specifically at hiring teachers.”

This draft bond plan would then be taken out to the public for review, comment and eventual tweaking by the board. More surveys would follow. Mr. Bouck and others would go out to every building again and ask staff members for their feedback. Then they would go out to every parent group of every building and do the same. Then they’d go out to businesses and clubs, such as Rotary, Kiwanis, Exchange clubs, Chamber of Commerce, etc.

After all that legwork, what happens if the bonds fail with the voters, as they have so many times before?

“Then it gets really ugly because the options are far and few between,” Mr. Bouck warned. “We’ve already taken space from libraries, from storage areas, from old portables that really should be put out to pasture. You know, it’s going to be tough. You have to look at a lot of different things: can you find more space; can you bus students to where you have space in one or two or three or four buildings; I really wouldn’t want to look at this, but do you look at double shifting? Those are things I don’t think our staff, parents or community want.”

Paige Darden, an advocate for improved schools said, “I was very supportive of our having spent money to create a Master Facilities Plan. Without a living/breathing plan, we have racked up $100-plus million in deferred maintenance, just to keep our students safe, dry and warm; no boundary changes have been made below the Rims in decades; and we have pockets of extreme overcrowding with nearby schools underutilized.”

Ms. Darden is comfortable with the decision to move to a K-5 model in the elementary setting, moving sixth-graders to middle schools. She cautions while that will address the space needs in our elementary schools, future challenges will present themselves by adding those students to the four current middle schools.

“My hope at this point is that the board will work hard to marry the demographic data they have with the Master Facilities Plan,” she says. “There are some areas of town predicting growth, other areas that are not. But, recognizing that this is a bubble, if we’re not very careful, we’ll end up building schools in some areas of town in order to close schools in others. I do not think the community will or should tolerate that again.”

Board member Kathy Aragon was one of two who voted against the Master Facilities Plan, and says while she fully supports the comprehensive facilities planning effort, there are still questions that need to be answered.

“It addresses the needs for increased space primarily at the middle school level as we move to 6-8 model of education [in the middle school setting],” she says. “Some elementary space is needed to meet the ‘ideal’ model and space needs for today’s teaching and learning. How that can be achieved will be an important discussion to have at the school board work session in March. The board will have to review historical expenditures, revenues and FTEs to best determine what is realistically affordable.

“We are currently experiencing an enrollment bubble with larger grade cohorts passing through our elementary schools which will peak at 2017 and then begin to flatten out and decline (per demographers). Because of annual revenue shortfalls we have had to continue to cut positions and been unable to hire teachers to keep pace with enrollment increases - hence the number of classes over accreditation.”

Ms. Aragon says when and if it is determined that the district can afford to operate a new school building, “it will be best practice to include our community partners in housing, public transportation, city planning, health and other community members to ensure we are collaborative to best meet the needs of all public entities while optimizing opportunities for savings. It would also be prudent (and required by board policy) to update/reevaluate our demographics by 2017.”

Sherry Ross, a mother of three in the Billings School system, wishes the state of Montana were better equipped to pick up the funding slack placed on voters.

“We have to have the state pass a new funding mechanism that gives SD2 a fair part of the money,” she suggested. “The funding formula is so broken that is has to change for SD2 to function effectively. We have to pass mill levies if they are still part of the funding formula. We have to pass them every year. Helena has never NOT passed a mill levy. Billings has passed a few the last 10 years.”

Access the Master Facilities Plan and updates at www.billingsschools.org.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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