If the next school bond unites the community -- instead of tearing it apart -- it would be a success.
That was one idea proposed at the final Helena Public Schools community listening session Thursday night at Warren Elementary School.
So was the idea that the school facilities should reflect the high value Helenans place on education.
Eight listening sessions have been held since the beginning of November, six for community members, and two for staff.
They are an initial step to help the district launch a fresh start for a future school bond, after a $70 million bond failed in June.
School board chair Aidan Myhre opened the session by telling the group of about 30 attendees, “We want and need to have a community-led vision.”
The district will also be posting listening session questions online for those who missed the sessions or want to add more feedback.
All eight of the listening sessions have covered the same key questions:
- What guiding principles are important to you in discussing facilities and educational goals?
- What interests need to be recognized as the school district plans for facilities improvement?
- What do you not want to lose when planning improved facilities? What do you want to gain?
Responses to these questions were recorded in small group discussions, with a variety of opinions presented. There was no attempt to reach consensus statements for each group.
Facilitator Virginia “Ginny” Tribe also asked attendees to describe a useful process to engage the community, and what success would look like in the end.
Some of the suggestions for tackling a future bond, included:
- give voters clear choices;
- give clear, solid data about these choices;
- give clear criteria for the different choices;
- be transparent;
- let people know what the plan is if the bond is passed -- voters should clearly know what this means for their kids and their school;
- find out more about who voted against the bond and why and what it would take for them to vote yes;
- learn from other communities that have successfully passed bonds how they did it;
- give clear information about all the facilities and their conditions, so bond is tailored to the true needs of the facilities;
- use virtual tours and storytelling to show what’s really going on in the schools and classrooms;
- find out who is the voice and leadership team for this bond;
- don’t be wishy-washy or vague;
- give consistent answers; and
- show how the bond will benefit the community.
Some of the issues raised by staff at Thursday’s meeting were:
- inadequate facilities for teaching special education students;
- lack of classroom space that results in teachers teaching in entryways and hallways;
- computers that don’t work or are way too slow for teaching a class;
- lack of fencing to keep younger students on the playground; and
- students in wheelchairs being taught in basement classrooms that don’t have ramp exits in case of emergency.
Not all problems raised, however, were with the facilities.
Will, a Helena High School student, said his school is not making simple and inexpensive investments in computer and software upgrades that could make computer use much faster and more efficient. He suggested that this was likely an issue across the district -- that computers were too old to run new programs.
And he also advocated for “less Common Core,” saying that certain chapters of his textbooks were not covered because of the emphasis on testing. He was more interested in learning information for his future, than for a test.
The group discussing guiding principles stated:
- students are more than a test score;
- human beings are more than scientists and mathematicians. They are logical, imaginative, emotional and embodied;
- schools need to be large enough to provide a safe environment for those there, but these don’t need to be megaschools;
- schools need to be close-knit communities;
- community schools are important;
- schools need to be adequate to meet student needs;
- schools need to be secure, safe structures;
- essentials are essential (including library, physical education, music, art); and
- the schools need to rebuild trust with the community.
As far as interests to be recognized, the group said:
- it is in the interest of taxpayers that the district is financially responsible.
- it is in the interest of students that the facilities should meet the safety, education and space requirements needed now and in the future (and that portable classrooms are not the answer).
- it is in the interest of students that the community put a higher value on the quality of the education and the facility, than on money.
What the group did not want to lose:
- kids as the main focus “for why we are doing this”;
- neighborhood schools;
- high quality education;
- schools as community centers;
- community support and engagement; and
- Montessori programs.
What they wanted to gain:
- safe and secure schools;
- more STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) opportunities;
- less Common Core;
- access to reliable technology;
- technology support for every family;
- early childhood facilities; and
- addressing the conflict between neighborhood schools and larger facilities.
Katie, a Hawthorne parent, said that on the last bond “people in town felt they were losing.” She urged the district to be truthful. “If you are closing down our school, give us an exact location of where my children are going. I had no information.”
Jennifer, another Hawthorne parent, said that she and her husband had made a lifestyle choice to live next to their neighborhood school. “Schools become the facilitator of community.”
One attendee observed that the meeting had helped him “to look at other perspectives.” And that if he had brainstormed on his own, he "couldn’t have come up with that list (of ideas)" himself.”
While another one said that it is in the interest of the city of Helena, since most of the school taxes come from there, to keep schools in the city. “And it is in the interest of Helena students, both in the city and valley, that they deserve to have great facilities and teachers.”
The notes from the November listening sessions are already online at http://bondinfo.helenaschools.org/
This week’s meeting summaries will be posted online in the next two weeks.
In January, Patinkin Research Strategies of Oregon will prepare to conduct a community survey to determine where the community stands.
Once the survey is completed, the school trustees will decide on what the next steps should be, according to School Superintendent Kent Kultgen.
They could decide to move forward or go back for more listening sessions.
Kultgen will also be holding individual listening sessions at each school to get more staff input in the facilities discussions.