Top 10: School Consolidation

Superintendent Kent Kultgen addresses

the school board during a bond proposal meeting last summer.

The Helena Business Improvement District is joining the opposition to the Helena school district’s plans for a $70 million bond to fund an array of school improvements.

Ballots are being mailed to voters Wednesday and are due for counting by 8 p.m. June 18.

Ballots can be mailed back to the county or dropped off at its elections office in the City-County Building on Park Avenue or taken to the school district’s offices in the May Butler Center, 55 S. Rodney St.

The Helena Area Chamber of Commerce has endorsed the bond proposal.

“Opposing this bond was a very difficult decision for our Board to make,” the May 29 Business Improvement District letter to school district Superintendent Kent Kultgen stated.

“We all supported previous school bond issues; we all support increased educational opportunities for our children; and we all support the need to make improvements to our facilities. This current bond issue does not do that in our opinion.”

“We ask the School Board to create a better plan that addresses the needs of not only our elementary schools but also the middle schools and keeps our children in their neighborhoods and classrooms, not on buses. Our neighborhoods and City matter and our children deserve better.”

In an emailed response sent to the Independent Record, Kultgen wrote: “Helena Public Schools takes seriously our mission to serve all students, regardless of where their family live. It’s disappointing that the BID choose not to support the bond that invests in improving our 11 elementary schools that serve 3400 students.

“At the very minimum, these schools are in dire need of safety and security improvements and technology upgrades, which the bond addresses. No doubt that our school facility challenges are complex, but the basis for the BID decision is not rooted in facts and isn’t in the best interest of all kids served by the Helena’s School District.”

Tracy Reich, the Business Improvement District executive director, said “We understand this is a really complex problem. We fully support investing in the schools.”

However, based on the information available on the school district’s website, the Business Improvement District voted unanimously to send Kultgen the letter, she explained.

“The board really just felt this was detrimental to the downtown,” she said. “We did not go into this lightly. It was a tough, tough decision.”

The four-page letter noted that neighborhood schools are existing infrastructure and, in some cases, historic buildings that promote pedestrian activity and are important to healthy neighborhoods such as the downtown and the neighborhoods that surround it.

“The Helena School District has created a facilities plan that does not support healthy walkable neighborhoods and looks to push development to outside the City limits with the proposed mega-schools, where infrastructure will have to be developed and there are no city services to support the campuses,” the letter stated.

The siting principles used by the school district are from Wyoming and Ohio and not comparable to Helena’s school system, it continued.

Helena’s in-town schools are laid out and meet recommendations that they be within one half of a mile of most students, the letter noted.

“Yet the vision behind the proposed bond would ultimately shutter most of these schools for consolidation into two super-sized elementary schools, to be housed in the repurposed C.R. Anderson Middle School and Helena Middle School. Existing high schools are to become middle schools; and new high schools are to be built somewhere outside of town.”

Responses to how many elementary schools would have to be closed for consolidation into C.R. Anderson are unclear, the Business Improvement District’s board said in its letter, but walkability for most of the city’s elementary students would be a thing of the past, as would schools as neighborhood centers.

“Experience elsewhere has shown that local property values often decline in the wake of school closures, in turn reducing tax revenues for the school district. Many Downtown Helena businesses can demonstrate the negative effects the closure of Central has had on their businesses.”

The school district's $70 million bond is also faulted by the Business Improvement District for proposing to spend $43 million on three periphery schools that serve only a quarter of all students. The seven neighborhood schools, with $27 million in deferred maintenance, would split $8 million, according to the letter.

The bond is also faulted for not addressing more than $13.4 million of deferred maintenance and safety issues at the two middle schools.

Plans for two high schools outside of Helena run counter to the city’s smart growth philosophy and would push future development farther from town, it added.

“Rather than discarding neighborhood schools to impose a busing-intensive suburban model of education where it doesn’t fit, we should invest in the assets we have and promote healthy livable neighborhoods with world-class schools,” the letter stated.

It continued and said, “We understand something needs to be done; however, this bond seems to be a Band-Aid similar to the ones that have perpetuated the issues that need addressed today.”

“There are some perspectives that are not true but have been talked about,” Kultgen said of the letter’s details on how students would fill schools.

Knowledge of what the bond would fund would address some inaccuracies in the letter, he added.

The bond is maintaining all of the 11 elementary schools and the walkability of students being able to reach schools, he said.

Central School is a district liability, Kultgen said, that has to be turned into an asset.

While the letter asserts it’s the district’s plan to use it for a school for only a few years before repurposing it or selling the building, Kultgen said, “I can’t and won’t predict the future.”

What the future holds for the school will be determined by future school board and community discussions, he said.

“This bond calls for kids to be back in that school,” he added.

Opposition such as that voiced by the Business Improvement District does not sound a death knell for the bond, Kultgen said.

The community recognizes the needs of the school district, he said, adding “we’re just arguing on how to address them at this point.”

Al Knauber can be reached at al.knauber@helenair.com

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I am a staff writer at the Independent Record covering primarily city and county governments.

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