Architects revealed initial drawings of a proposed high school in East Helena during a community meeting Tuesday night.
East Helena residents packed the cafeteria at East Valley Middle School for a presentation from SMA Architects on what the high school would look like if voters pass a $29.5 million bond on May 8. The presentation given by architects and school district officials emphasized community. Architects said they could sense community pride when they started working with the district and incorporated it into the design process. The school district advocated for schooling East Helena students in East Helena throughout their entire educational career.
“We have our own identity and we have a unique sense of pride within our school district and our community,” Scott Walter, school board chair, said. “Facilities provided by this bond would not only be utilized by the kids of our school district, but it would be offered to the citizens of our district. Right now the educational funds and the decision that are made … are being made in the Helena school district. That will continue unless this bond passes.”
SMA Architects showed community members a slideshow of initial drawings based on community input. The two-story high school would be surrounded by a football field and track complex, fields for soccer and other sports and plenty of parking space. The interior of the school would have a large common area that other aspects of the building, like the library, are connected to. The building would be designed to accommodate multiple learning styles and have designated space for core instruction, special education and career and technical education. The exterior of the building would have durable materials to preserve its lifespan. The front of the building would have an abundance of glass and natural light to create a welcoming environment.
“Being a central gathering space for the community, the 'front door' will make students, families, teachers and the wider East Helena community feel welcome,” the presentation said.
The school district has not yet decided where to build the school, but the bond includes a budget for purchasing land.
The school district's Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer broke down the tax impact of building a new high school, and he asked community members to keep in mind that they might have to pay higher taxes to the Helena school district in the next few years if the East Helena bond fails. Crowding at the Helena high schools could require the Helena district to make renovations or build a new school, Whitmoyer said.
Whitmoyer said a taxpayer with a home valued at $200,000 would pay $34.21 per month over a 20-year bond for the construction of the high school in East Helena.
In addition to the bond, taxpayers are also responsible for paying to operate the school, which includes costs such as utilities. Currently, an East Helena homeowner with a home valued at $200,000 is paying approximately $19 a month to operate the high schools in Helena. If voters approve a high school in East Helena, that cost will go away. It will be replaced with a tax to operate the high school in East Helena, which is estimated to cost taxpayers $15 a month.
“The point is, if this bond were to pass, you would no longer pay Helena High School taxes,” Whitmoyer said. “Your tax money will stay right here in this community.”
Whitmoyer said as more people build in the East Helena community, homeowners will see their taxable value increase and the cost of the bond will decrease over the years.
"$34.21 is your worst case scenario," he said.
After the presentation, community members had the opportunity to provide feedback or ask questions. One person asked Whitmoyer about how East Helena will afford tuition and transportation costs for East Helena students to attend school in Helena while the new school is being built. Whitmoyer said the cost of tuition and transportation is actually less expensive than the operational taxes East Helena residents are paying to the Helena district now.
People expressed concern about planning for a growing community and whether the school will have to be expanded before the bond is paid off. Whitmoyer said he expects the school to start with 500 students and a maximum capacity of 614 students. While Whitmoyer said he thinks that will accommodate 20 years of growth, architects said the building takes into consideration the possibility of building more classroom space.
Mary Ann Dunwell, a state legislator representing East Helena, asked about safety and security due to the frequency of school shootings around the country.
Klint Fisher, an architect at SMA, said it’s not the first time the firm has considered safety and security. The building would have a vestibule at the main entry that is locked until a visitor has checked in and is approved to enter by a school employee. The main entry would be the only doors unlocked during school hours, and certain sections of the building would be able to be locked down to isolate an intruder.
“We want to balance that with creating a positive, warm environment that has daylight,” Fisher said.