Schools as community centers, the importance of a high quality education and schools as common ground for the city and valley to work together were a few of the common themes mentioned at the first Helena Public Schools community listening session Monday night.

An estimated 50 people attended the session at Ray Bjork Learning Center.

Five more general public listening sessions are scheduled, as well as two for school district staff. The next community meetings are Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Ray Bjork, 1600 8th Ave., with another meeting Thursday at Jim Darcy Elementary School, 990 Lincoln Road. Refreshments and check-in is at 5:30 p.m. both nights.

Superintendent Kent Kultgen welcomed the crowd and told them he saw the meetings as a time for restarting and a time for re-engagement.

The meetings launch a fresh start for school facilities discussions following the June defeat of a $70 million bond issue. All the meetings will follow the same format, said facilitator Virginia “Ginny” Tribe.

The key discussion questions were:

  • 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?

Much of the discussion took place in small groups of about 10 to 12 people, which then reported out the key points to the larger group.

Some of the groups' guiding principles included:

  • an urgent need to address student needs at Central School (now Central-Linc), which has a high level of impoverished and homeless students with special needs;
  • a recognition that schools are not just buildings, but community and neighborhood centers that add cohesiveness and safety to neighborhoods;
  • that all kids and all schools are important;
  • that city and county residents do not want to be pitted against each other;
  • that schools should meet adequate standards to provide for a quality, 21st century education and should be safe; and that
  • Helena can learn from other communities like Billings and Bozeman, which grappled with similar school issues and passed bonds;

Some of the interests that need to be addressed include:

  • schools should be good learning and teaching environments;
  • they should be built where growth policies recommend;
  • they should make the best use of existing resources;
  • having schools in walkable neighborhoods is conducive to healthy communities;
  • getting the community engaged and on board, including city and county officials and the Chamber of Commerce.

What people didn’t want to lose, were:

  • the ability to address the specialized needs of kids, through programs like the Project for Alternative Learning and Montessori;
  • schools as community centers;
  • the small school feel; and
  • autonomy teachers have in how they teach.

What people wanted to gain was better school facilities and equality of facilities and opportunities for all students.

For a complete report of all the discussion points from the first four meetings, visit www.helenaschools.org -- where reports from all the first meetings will be posted -- early next week.

“I agree with these statements, said school board member Betsy Baur, “It seems we want everything. When are we going to be realistic?”

“This is the beginning of the process,” Tribe replied. "Planning is a collaborative process, you want to jump to answers.”

This is an initial step in how to put the parts together, she added.

John Hollow suggested that the school district find out the real reasons why the previous bond failed, rather than operating on assumptions.

Kultgen closed the meeting by urging participants to stay engaged and to follow up on the meetings by checking the school district website.

Monday’s listening session was quite different than what launched the district’s opening school facility discussions in 2013 with the Mosaic study, said Board Member Libby Goldes. “Mosaic was more focused on facilities.”

With facilities as the starting point, people quickly took sides, she said.

“It became more obvious that we needed to understand relationships,” Goldes said. “This is starting out from a different perspective.”

“I thought it was a good start,” said Lewis and Clark County Preservation Officer Pam Attardo, "but now it needs to be refined."

Reporter Marga Lincoln can be reached at 447-4083 marga.lincoln@helenair.com

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