School board trustees said they knew finalizing an elementary bond proposal would be difficult, but making a decision became even harder Tuesday night after several community members questioned the district’s transparency in putting together its plan.

Their confidence in community support shaken, trustees voted 5-2 to put off the decision for two weeks while Superintendent Kent Kultgen brings more information to the table. Their decision came after more than four hours of presentations, public comment and board discussion.

“I came wanting to support this tonight,” Trustee Aidan Myhre said. “I hear resoundingly that we are not ready.”

As presented, the $45.1 million proposal would build a new school on the existing site of Jim Darcy Elementary, expand Warren Elementary, add technology upgrades and computer labs to every elementary school and overhaul downtown Central School.

Central School drew the most scrutiny, as the proposal seeks to double the school’s current size so it can hold — as with Jim Darcy and Warren — around 500 students.

The proposal to expand a school with around 240 students, which itself was considered for permanent closure less than two years ago, put pressure on one of the district’s inevitable decisions: closing and consolidating schools.

The district must close one or more facilities before addressing the overcrowding situation at C.R. Anderson, the state’s largest middle school, Kultgen said, because opening a new school would push annual operating costs above the state-mandated maximum.

Kultgen and the steering committee thus decided to tackle the facilities question in steps, beginning by getting students back to their neighborhood schools.

Then, he said, the school board will have to devise an “objective” procedure for closing schools by identifying enrollment counts that trigger a closure.

After that, by 2017, the district can call for a bond to build a new middle school, whether a stand-alone building or by converting another elementary school into a K-8 facility.

“I think we have to be transparent to our public,” Kultgen said in presenting the proposal. “There’s going to come a time when we have to consolidate our schools.”

However, a succession of residents and parents who provided public comment said officials weren’t being up-front with respect to the district’s consolidation plan.

That included resident Sarah Sullivan, who spoke as a “minority opinion” among members of the steering committee.

“This board has been criticized in the past for putting the cart before the horse, and I really feel you’re about to do this again,” she said.

Sullivan said the district shouldn’t build a 498-student school at Central before saying which students will learn inside it.

“I don’t believe it is a proposal that reflects community consensus,” she said. “It’s not that I think this is a terrible bond proposal, I just don’t think it’s a complete one.”

Kiely Keane, a parent, said she will feel like she’s been “duped” if the bond is put forth but the board doesn’t state publicly which schools will eventually be closed.

“There’s not excitement about this plan. There’s grave concern about it,” she said. “I would urge you to draw the boundaries, tell us the plan front to back.”

Parent and resident Aimee Grmoljez said she wants the district to explain why the “4-3” school size — which refers to the configuration associated with 498-capacity schools — is ideal, adding that the concept is new to many parents.

Doug Shenkle, a retired teacher of 38 years, also said he wanted to see district leaders be more forthcoming about the decisions ahead.

“You have not been transparent enough about what needs to be done and what really needs to happen,” he said.

Shenkle called for transparency and more conceptual planning so the district could then “git ’er done.”

Parent Erin Turner said the reality of future school closures hadn’t been made clear until lately.

“The telling moment for me was when the statement was made that we cannot do anything about overcrowding at C.R.A. while we have 11 elementary schools,” she said. “That information wasn’t given transparently a year ago.”

However, Turner, a parent of two Central students, urged the board to act quickly to return students to their neighborhood schools.

“It is unreasonable right now what they are being asked to do,” she said.

Others, however, argued the district discussion regarding school facilities has been thorough and said the time to move ahead is now.

“We’re about six years into a very public process,” former School Board of Trustees Chair Michael O’Neil said.

O’Neil said he figures the district has held more than 100 public meetings regarding facilities during that time. He called the proposal at hand the first step of a comprehensive plan and argued that the district can’t say yet with confidence which schools should be closed.

“I can wholeheartedly support the plan because I’ve watched the process work,” he said. “Transparency has been at the heart of this process.”

Trustee Cherche Prezeau said she was torn between the district’s need to act and a sense that “a large segment of the population doesn’t feel educated.”

Trustee Terry Beaver argued that the current proposal addresses one of the district’s most pressing needs.

“We have been given a chance to solve only one problem, and that’s displaced students,” he said. “You cannot take the hundreds of problems in our district and try to solve them all.”

“This is a sound solution,” he added.

Prezeau responded by saying she worried the plan to expand Central is “overstepping what the problem is.

“What we’re doing at Central isn’t addressing displaced students,” Prezeau said, “We’re building it two times larger.”

“I think we have to be up front with people,” she said.

Trustee Betsy Baur said the process by which the bond proposal has been developed was not ideal, although she believes Central is the right location for a larger downtown school. She said she was impressed by Kultgen’s focus on facilities issues since becoming superintendent but thought the district has failed to enact a strong communications strategy for the bond.

Baur also said she was disappointed that no parents from the North Valley schools came to speak on behalf of the district’s “upcoming investment” in the area.

Myhre pushed for trustees to delay making a decision until officials can provide information and answers to questions raised during the meeting.

Chief among those concerns, she said, is which schools will be targeted for consolidation in the near future. Myhre also requested further information regarding “right-sized” schools, the proposed technology centers and a timeline for adjusting school boundaries.

“I think the community needs and wants more information,” she said.

The district has a lot of work to do in communicating with the public, Trustee Ellen Feaver said, but she argued that a bond decision won’t get any easier with time.

“If we don’t get a building out there (in the North Valley), we’re going to be in a worse pickle than we are now,” she said.

Prezeau said she’s committed to supporting the bond once put forth, but “just because we feel ready to move forward doesn’t mean our community is ready to move with us.”

In her remarks, chair Libby Goldes argued that every facilities decision must be made with student achievement as the final priority.

“Are we going to have 11 elementary schools or are we going to provide the resources students need?” she said.

She said the district’s current buildings do not provide an adequate learning environment for students.

“We have not done right by our children,” she said.

“I hesitate to think about putting this off,” Goldes added.

Trustees considered several options to delay the decision and briefly discussed pushing the bond measure back as far as November.

They ultimately decided to hold a special meeting on Feb. 10 in which Kultgen will address through a presentation the topics outlined by Myhre. The meeting will be held at Ray Bjork Learning Center at a time to be determined.

Trustees  Baur, Goldes, Lovshin, Myhre and Prezeau voted in favor of the motion. Trustees Beaver and Feaver opposed.

The board stated it hopes to make a final decision at its regularly scheduled meeting on Feb. 11. The board must call for a bond within the next three weeks to have it placed on the May ballot.

In the meantime, board members said they urge members of the public to submit thoughts, questions and concerns to the district. Goldes said those contributions can be emailed to boardoftrustees@helena.k12.mt.us.

Kultgen and a few trustees said they hope the additional time will enable the entire board to support a bond recommendation without hesitancy.

“We’ve made some good gains tonight,” Kultgen said. “Just making ‘consolidation’ come out without stuttering is good.”

Kultgen said after the meeting that he plans to provide the board on Feb. 10 with a “matrix” outlining data on enrollment, population area and lot size for each of the district’s 11 elementary schools. He said he doesn’t plan to name a short-list of schools being considered for closure.

“I will not name a school without talking to that community,” he said.

“I had hoped we would be able to make a decision tonight,” Goldes said just before trustees’ vote. “However, we have to be responsive to our community.”

This is a big decision, and we haven’t made this kind of decision in a long time,” she said.

An earlier version of this article omitted a vote cast by board chair Libby Goldes in favor of the motion to postpone the decision. The correct vote was 5-2.

(2) comments

justme59601
justme59601

wow this is big. are the liberal school board rejects growing weary of spending other peoples money and raising their taxes??

Hermas
Hermas

Our community needs additional school space, and I typically support such initiatives. However, Kultgen's recent decision to award a contract of more than $50,000 (and we still don't know how much more) on a non-competive basis A.L.M. Consulting based on an "emergency" that was in existance for more than 40 years indicates his administration are not good stewards of public funding or public trust. We should probably wait on the bond until we have someone we can trust in charge of the money.

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