Hawthorne, Bryant and Jefferson Elementary Schools would close, with boundaries for the remaining elementary schools redrafted to more evenly distribute students, under an elementary school bond proposal brought before the school board by Helena School District Superintendent Kent Kultgen.
“The majority, if not all people in Helena, understand we need to do something with our facilities,” Kultgen said. “Academically, we can’t continue the status quo.”
The district would sell five buildings, Hawthorne, Bryant, May Butler, Front Street Learning Center and Ray Bjork, while converting Jefferson to administration offices under the proposal. The remaining eight elementary schools, Jim Darcy, Central, Smith, Kessler, Rossiter, Four Georgians, Warren and Broadwater, would see between $3.4 million and $13.6 million in construction if voters approve a $73 million bond next May.
Kultgen citied statistics showing that the costs will increase each year the district waits to begin construction.
Construction would come in two phases, with Central, Warren, Four Georgians and Jim Darcy beginning in the first phase, and the first schools opening in 2016. Rossiter, Smith, Kessler and Broadwater would come in the second phase, with those schools reopening starting in 2018. Lincoln Elementary would remain as a swing school for students displaced by construction.
Construction would make schools bigger by adding classrooms, but a larger school does not mean a larger class size, Kultgen said.
Redrawing boundaries would even out student enrollment between 420 and 461 for the remaining schools, except for Broadwater, which would enroll 341 under Kultgen’s plan.
Kultgen proposed shifting all elementary schools, with the exception of Broadwater, to a 4-3 structure, with four classes of up to 20 students for kindergarten through second grade, three classes of up to 28 for third and fourth grades, and up to 30 students for three classes of fifth grade. Four Georgians and Rossiter already use the 4-3 structure.
Shifting to a 4-3 structure would allow the district to concentrate funding for technology and employ full-time special staff like nurses, Kultgen said. Special staff rotates between schools not using the 4-3 structure.
He pointed to recent bonds in Billings and Bozeman to move schools to the 4-3 structure and redraw boundaries as evidence that Helena should follow suit. Kultgen’s proposal also calls for computer labs in every elementary school as part of an effort to update technology.
“This isn’t about saving money,” he said. “What it comes down to is resources to our kids.”
The school closures and consolidations would save the district money. It would eliminate two teaching jobs, one principal and one custodian. Additional savings would come in cutting utility and operational costs through the selling of the buildings. Estimated savings would come in at $1.1 million annually, Kultgen said.
The district would not fire current teachers, but eliminate the jobs through yearly attrition, he said.
Based on a May bond approval, the district estimates the total cost for consolidation and construction would reach $84.76 million — over $10 million more than the district can ask for by law. To make up the difference, the Legislature would have to raise the amount the district can ask for, or the district would regain bonding capacity as it pays off the existing bond, Kultgen said.
“Right now I don’t have an answer for you,” he said.
Consolidation would also balance the economic diversity of the students, Kultgen said.
The percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch under the Title 1 program varies across schools, with 22 percent eligible in Jim Darcy up to 100 percent qualifying at Bryant.
“What we’re concerned about is that students at title schools need more help, and what’s going to happen if we close Bryant?” Kultgen said. “It will diversify economic levels of kids in all classes.”
Broadwater, Central and Smith elementary schools have classrooms for the popular Montessori Program, which uses an individualized learning program for children to learn at their own pace. The program is so popular, a lottery system is in place for the limited enrollment capacity.
Kultgen said that the Montessori Program may be too centralized in the city limits, and suggested that Smith’s Montessori Program be moved to Warren in the valley.
Several in attendance encouraged the expansion of the Montessori Program, as demand is far higher than availability. Kultgen responded that the program is beyond the basic requirements of the district and, given the financial situation, expansion was not something he was considering at this time.
The discussion of what to do with middle schools would come after consolidation of elementary schools, but Kultgen said he has shifted course from supporting the construction of a third middle school in the district in favor of redrawing boundaries to even out enrollment between C.R. Anderson and Helena Middle School. The savings generated by consolidating elementary schools would be entirely eaten up in operating costs for a new middle school, and he would rather see that money go towards academic needs in the elementary schools, he said.
The proposal comes on the heels of the Helena elementary bond working group’s failure to reach a consensus on recommendations for the district. The lack of specific numbers on operating costs, savings and benefits to closure and consolidation were a major reason some working group members cited for their inability to reach a consensus.
Kultgen praised the efforts of the working group in pushing the discussions over school closures and boundary changes forward.
Kultgen said in an interview he resisted bringing forward a plan with specific school closures until now because he wanted the decisions to be community-based rather than unilateral, but that people in the community just want a plan to consider.
“This is a proposal I can stand behind,” he said.