Years of research, planning and community input on the future of Helena’s schools came to a head Tuesday night.
Kent Kultgen, Superintendent of Helena Public Schools, presented his Educational Planning/Operational Implementation Plan for the city’s elementary schools to the Helena Public Schools Board of Trustees during the group’s scheduled meeting at the Capital High Auditorium. Two demographers hired by the district also presented their most recent analysis of Helena’s demographic trends and their forecast for population trends in the Helena area over the next 10 years.
While the board made no decisions based on the information last night, the presentations had the most detailed numbers to date about shifting demographics in the district and what it will cost and take to deal with those developments over the next decade, as well as costs and multiple options for dealing with deferred facilities maintenance and the need to bring Helena’s schools up to 21st century standards.
Before the meeting started, Kultgen said that many of the key decisions to be made based on the information will come after the school election on May 7 and after the school board is restructured during the group’s May 14 board meeting.
About 50 community members attended the meeting and the two presentations ran until just before 9 p.m.
Demographics report and recommendations
The two demographers, Jerome McKibben, of McKibben Demographic Research LLC, and Matthew Cropper of Cropper GIS, started the meeting, sharing revealing trends about how students are currently served in Helena’s schools.
They said that by 2017, the elementary and middle school population will grow 2.4 percent to about 3,560 students and then drop back down by nearly the same amount by 2022.
Among the many topics they discussed, they said that only 40 percent of Helena’s elementary and middle school capacity is north of the railroad that cuts through Helena, while 60 percent of forecasted elementary growth over the next decade will be in that same area.
Based on these findings, the demographers’ recommendations include adding a minimum of 250 elementary seats to the North Valley area and 250 seats of middle school capacity.
Even with those added seats, the number of students enrolled at both Jim Darcy and Four Georgians need to be cut because both of those schools are overcrowded, Cropper said.
To achieve this, the demographers recommend converting Jim Darcy and Rossiter to K-8 schools. The schools would each have capacity for 500 elementary students and 250 7-8 grade students. The schools would be designed so that, although housed under the same roof, the elementary and middle school groups at each location would function as separate schools, they said.
The demographers also discussed the need to redistrict school boundaries, but Cropper said it was too early to go into specific redistricting lines until the board makes more concrete budgetary decisions and gets more input from the community, among other considerations.
Several times during the presentation, the demographers stressed that their recommendations are merely options for the school board to consider, and that the board should take these topics to community members for their input.
The demographers’ report will be made available on the school district’s website, as will a link to the interactive demographics map they made of the district, Cropper said.
Educational Plan and recommendations
The stated goal of the plan, which is detailed in a 51-page document that can be found in PDF format at www.helenair.com or www.helena.k12.mt.us, is to provide all Helena students with 21st-century learning environments; address shifting demographics; reduce overcrowding at C.R. Anderson Middle School, which at more than 1,000 students is the largest middle school in Montana; and repair and update decaying school buildings and facilities, which is estimated to come with a $60 million price tag over the next five to 10 years.
During his presentation of the Educational Plan, Kultgen highlighted options and line-itemed costs for upgrading each of the district’s 17 schools, information that takes up pages of the Educational Planning document.
He also spoke of the need to redraw the boundaries around many of Helena’s schools to address shifting demographics.
“I do believe we have to look at (school) boundaries,” he told the board. “It will bring up a lot of emotions and a lot of feelings. This is something that we’re going to have to address as a board.”
He said that it is important that school boundaries being changed be done with transparency and very close involvement from the community since doing so is such a sensitive issue.
Kultgen said through all of the Educational Planning process, the challenge is that new construction can be paid for through a bond, but the district is using 100 percent of the operational budget allowed by state law, which will make staffing and paying for day-to-day operations of any expansions a challenge — a challenge the board must take on and one that he said he feels can be overcome.
He said that one of his goals is to get the Project for Alternative Learning, which is currently crammed into the Front Street Learning Center, into a “positive learning environment” by this fall.
Another of his many recommendations is to ultimately close the May Butler Center, Front Street Learning Center and the Ray Bjork School and move those programs and operations to other spaces within the district.
He stressed that no programs would be cut by doing these things and that it could take years to reach these goals.
“These are just options, board, these are things that are on your table as we partner with the community and get ideas out there,” he said.