Which students will attend Central Elementary if the school is doubled in size?
That’s the biggest unanswered question of the school district’s bond proposal, Superintendent Kent Kultgen acknowledges.
Now Kultgen says voters may have an answer before they’re asked to approve a $45 million bond later this year.
A workgroup charged with refining the proposal will begin meeting next week, and Kultgen said the group will likely mull school closures and include them in a recommendation to the school board in May.
“My goal is for them to have a solid proposal ahead that we can run a bond for this fall,” he said. “I think (Central School) is the biggest question they have to answer.”
District officials have said consolidating schools will be necessary as part of its multi-phase bond plan but have declined to say which may be shuttered, citing lack of information and the need for a separate planning process.
Some vocal community members took issue with the prospect of funding construction before knowing which schools may close as a result and criticized the district at several public meetings.
In response, trustees decided last month to delay to bond measure until the fall, while Kultgen pledged to convene another committee to refine the proposal and educate voters.
The elementary bond workgroup will consist of 37 members — including a parent and staff representative from each K-8 school, plus seven at-large members — and will hold its first meeting next Wednesday. Former Helena Education Foundation Executive Director Cindy Lewis will serve as facilitator.
The committee, Kultgen said Monday, will revisit the proposal with an eye on two specific issues: the components of a Central School expansion and the plan to deal with overcrowding at C.R. Anderson Middle School.
As part of that, committee members will likely develop a recommendation that includes a more detailed plan for closing schools.
Trustees then intend to act upon any recommendation over the summer, so voters know which buildings are slated for closure before the board approves bond language, according to chair Libby Goldes.
“We heard from the public that they wanted a more definite answer about what schools will be affected by this,” Goldes said.
Kultgen had previously sought to address closures by establishing new district policy and planning procedures that would stretch over the next two years. He argued at various points that the district needed an objective process and additional enrollment data.
Asked what changed his mind, Kultgen said Monday that the consolidation required to fill an enlarged Central School will only affect boundaries on the east side of the city — whereas anticipated enrollment fluctuations due to students returning to Jim Darcy will only impact the west side.
He added that the workgroup offers an open forum for those decisions to be made.
“What changed my mind is that we’re taking time to bring together a huge committee that can discuss things in total transparency,” he said.
Its weekly meetings will be posted publicly and provide opportunities for public comment, Kultgen said. Kultgen is not a formal member of the committee but said he will attend in an informational capacity.
He expects the group will make a final recommendation to the school board by mid-May.
Goldes acknowledged that the school closure conversation won’t necessarily be easy, but she hopes residents will provide input during the next few months.
“We’ve got peoples’ attention. Now is the time. We want to hear what people have to say,” Goldes said.
The elementary bond workgroup will hold its first meeting on Wednesday, March 18, at Warren School. The meeting begins at 6 p.m.