The Helena school district recently announced it hired a professional moderator to lead eight listening sessions aimed at gauging community goals for school facilities.

Virginia Tribe, a Missoula-based moderator, will be leading four sessions in early November and four sessions in early December.

“I’ve worked with her on a variety of really tough issues and she’s probably one of the best in the Northwest,” school board chair Aidan Myhre said.

Tribe has worked as a contract moderator for 26 years. She designed the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks community discussions for reintroduction of bison in eastern Montana, led citizen working groups related to the Clark Fork River Superfund Project and facilitated discussions about removing grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem from the endangered species list.

District leaders say the listening sessions are part of a three-step process to complete a “community audit.”

On Nov. 5, the school board is scheduled to meet with officials from the city, Lewis and Clark County, East Helena and the East Helena School District. The inaugural meeting is supposed to outline each entity’s role moving forward.

The district also hired Patinkin Research Group to conduct a survey, after the last listening session is completed on Dec. 10, of community opinions about school facilities.

Information gathered by the listening sessions and the survey will be used to plan the next phase, Myhre said.

The announcement of the so-called community audit is the first concrete step taken by the district since the $70 million elementary bond failed in late June. During much of the development of the last bond, some residents lambasted the school board for not listening to community opinion, despite over 160 open meetings and years of altering plans.

Both Myhre and Superintendent Kent Kultgen said they learned from the last bond process and are taking those lessons into consideration moving forward.

“We’re not starting with ‘here’s the plan,’” Kultgen said. “Really, we’re relying on Virginia Tribe’s expertise to pull that out of the groups that we have.”

Since shortly after the bond’s failure, Myhre said, “We knew we wanted to hear from the community and have that discussion with the community, we weren't quite sure how it would work.”

Though the times and locations haven't been finalized, the first set of four listening sessions will take place Nov. 9 through Nov. 12 in the evening at various schools. All will be open to community members, but Tuesday’s will target school district staff.

The same format will be used during four meetings from Dec. 7 through Dec. 10.

Each of the eight meetings will be independent and will not build on the previous meeting.

Kultgen said Tribe is going to present the audience with open-ended questions like: What is your vision for a 21st century school building?

He emphasized that at this point, the meetings are all about hearing from the community.

Myhre said as the discussion continues one thing the board needs to do better is explain why the district needs new facilities. For instance, Myhre said, in order to raise graduation requirements in science the district needs more laboratory space.

“We need to do a better job of saying the why and what it really means to kids,” she said.

Kultgen said the listening sessions mark an exciting time for the district.

“I really believe, if done right, the next bond will pass,” he said.

Alexander Deedy can be reached at 447-4081 or alexander.deedy@helenair.com

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