East Helena's school board unanimously approved a resolution Monday to ask voters for a $29.5 million bond to construct a new high school.
If voters approve the bond in a mail ballot election on May 8, the district will purchase property and could start construction by the end of the year. The goal is to have students in the new high school by 2020.
A high school in East Helena would likely be Class A and enroll 500 to 600 students. Ron Whitmoyer, the school district's superintendent, said East Helena students come from smaller class sizes and know all their peers, which can make the transition to a AA high school in the Helena school district challenging.
“There’s a deep concern now that East Helena kids are getting lost in the system going to school out of town,” Whitmoyer said. “There are social, emotional and educational needs that can be better met in a local high school.”
East Helena officials have been considering building a high school for years, and a law passed by the Montana Legislature in 2017 paved the way. It allows elementary districts to consider expanding to become high school districts if they have an enrollment of more than 1,000 students.
In November, East Helena voters approved a ballot measure giving the district permission to explore the possibility of a high school, which was the required first step under the new law. If voters approve the bond, the final requirement would be a vote to fund the project.
If the high school is approved, state law would require students to gradually transfer to the new district to minimize the impact on existing schools in Helena.
At the board meeting Monday, Jason Davis with SMA Architects said he is comfortable with the bond amount and will be able to stay under budget after considering variables in construction costs.
The cost of the $29.5 million bond for an owner of a $200,000 home is projected at $34.21 per month. However, the district’s economic analysis shows those homeowners would pay less to operate the new school than they are currently paying to support the high schools in Helena.
“Ultimately, taxpayers here will pay less than what we spend supporting the high schools in Helena,” Scott Walter, School Board Chairman, said. “The operations and maintenance of our own school, here in East Helena at 93 percent of the maximum allowed by law, will be less than what it costs to operate Helena High and Capital High.”
If East Helena decides not to build a high school, Walter said residents might see their taxes rise to pay for a bond that would expand existing schools or construct a third high school in Helena to address overcrowding.
“The fact is East Helena is better off in terms of taxes and the education and well-being of our kids by making this investment in our community and building our own high school,” he said.
East Helena is in the process of implementing a $12 million bond passed in May 2017 to build a new elementary school and make updates at existing schools.