As East Helena considers building a new high school, surrounding districts are already preparing for the possibility of losing students and the funding that comes with them.
Members of the East Helena school board recently approved a mail-in ballot question on whether the school district should further explore the possibility of a high school, but they are not yet asking voters to provide any funding or approve construction.
After voters approved a $12 million facilities bond earlier this year to build a new school for first and second graders in East Helena, the school district has a long way to go in persuading taxpayers to fund a new high school too. Those hurdles became clear during a community meeting on Wednesday.
But other districts would face challenges if East Helena is successful. The Helena school district could lose the significant amount of funding it currently receives for the many East Helena students enrolled there. At Jefferson High School in Boulder, officials worry the school's growing enrollment could be stunted by a similarly sized high school in the area.
In Montana, public school districts receive roughly $7,000 per student. Many districts also receive about $300,000 in what is known as a basic entitlement, though larger districts receive more. Schools also receive funding for special education, Native American students, the number of full-time educators employed and at-risk students.
People who attended the meeting in East Helena on Wednesday were concerned about funding. The district is also experiencing confusion about the upcoming ballot question, which doesn’t ask for money. One community member said her neighbor thinks an existing construction zone is for a new high school. Board Chair Scott Walter said he’s heard from people who were concerned about whether the district would truly be unencumbered from Helena and whether it is prepared to take on the responsibilities of a K-12 district if a new high school is built.
A select few K-8 districts received the authority to expand from the Montana Legislature this year. The bill attempts to minimize strains on existing districts when a new high school is built. If East Helena builds a high school, the district has an agreement with Helena to move one class at a time, or approximately 125 students a year. The larger district could slowly adjust to staffing changes. The state also allows schools to receive per-student funding based on three-year enrollment averages, which would ease the transition.
Helena High School receives the majority of East Helena students once they graduate from middle school. The uncertainty of how many East Helena students would still come to the Helena, an open district, makes it difficult for administrators to plan.
The state also provides funding for school districts contingent on the size of their tax base.
Helena Public Schools Superintendent Jack Copps previously said if the Helena district loses its East Helena high-schoolers, the projected tax impact on a Helena school district taxpayer would be an additional $0.79 per month on a home valued at $100,000, or $1.58 on a home valued at $200,000.
The system in place requires students from East Helena to pay tuition, which is set at the average amount a taxpayer in the district would pay. Assistant Superintendent Greg Upham said setting that fee is about striking a balance. If the fee is too expensive, a parent might choose to send their child elsewhere and the school would lose its per-student payment.
Tim Norbeck, superintendent of Jefferson High School in Boulder, said a high school in East Helena could drive students from his school district elsewhere.
Three elementary districts currently feed Jefferson High School. But the larger high schools in Helena draw some students away from Clancy and Montana City, which are located in Jefferson County but are closer to Helena. And a high school in East Helena could draw even more Jefferson County students who want to attend a smaller school like the one in Boulder but don't want to drive that far.
Norbeck said approximately 250 students who live in Jefferson County attend high school in Helena. Of the graduating eighth grade class from Montana City last year, two went to Capital High School, nine went to Jefferson High School and 43 went to Helena High School.
Norbeck said he supports parents and students having the opportunity to make a decision on where they’ll receive education.
“The ability to choose what’s best for their students, I think that’s great they get that opportunity, but if (East Helena is) open enrollment that just adds another burden,” he said.
Norbeck is also responsible for protecting the enrollment growth his high school has experienced over the past few years. The high school had 207 students enrolled in 2015 and 265 in 2017. Any sudden or significant drop in enrollment results in a loss of per-student payments, which can threaten special programs and classes and teachers’ jobs.
Jefferson High School has a strong theater program, a large portion of students in band and a four day school week to attract students.
“We have to show we have quality offerings,” Norbeck said. “I think it’s had some effect.”
Because so many students from Montana City opt to come to Helena, counselors from both Helena High School and Jefferson High School make presentations before eighth graders graduate. Norbeck said counselors from Helena have enticed students to come to Helena instead of attending high school in their own district.
Tony Kloker, superintendent of Montana City School, said counselors are not allowed to recruit. Instead, they give students the proper paperwork, forms and a handbook to take home.
“It’s basically just information for our eighth graders,” Kloker said. “By design, it’s not intentionally to recruit or entice students to go to one school or another. We believe it’s important to give the parents the information.”
If East Helena were to build a school, it would likely be a closed district, but Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer said out-of-district students would be allowed to continue.
“I doubt very much that we could build the high school large enough to take out-of-district kids.” he said. “It would require a larger building than our taxpayers would want to build.”
Whitmoyer said most of the out-of-district kids started school while living in East Helena, but moved without changing schools.
School boards make the final decision on whether a district is open or closed.
Community members can find updates on the East Helena High School measure on the EH for Helena Kids Facebook page and can provide feedback through a survey at www.ehps.k12.mt.us.