Representatives from school districts that send students to Helena’s high schools had opportunity to comment on plans for the city’s schools during the Helena Public Schools Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday night.
About 35 people attended the meeting, including representatives of Wolf Creek, Montana City and East Helena schools.
Over the last 18 months, consultants led by Ben Tintinger of Mosaic Architecture have been working with community members and educators to formulate long-term proposals on how Helena can deal with decaying infrastructure, crowding and other issues within the community’s schools
The group’s recommendations include the construction of a new middle school and renovations and/or construction at virtually every school in both the Helena elementary and high school districts.
Kent Kultgen, superintendent of Helena Public Schools, presented the group’s recommendations, which come with an estimated cost of $105 million over the next 10 years.
During the board meeting, Kultgen stressed that those recommendations are only recommendations at this point and that what the district can realistically afford to build and operate is still being researched.
Between the Helena elementary and high school districts there is a bonding capacity of about $180 million, Kultgen said.
However, he said the general fund for the district’s operational expenses is essentially “tapped out,” putting limitations on the districts’ ability to hire additional staff or take on greater operational costs.
Kultgen is working on an operational costs plan that he said will be completed by the end of February and will be presented to the school board in the first week of March.
Possible East Helena High School
Ron Whitmoyer, superintendent of East Helena Public Schools, and several other members of that district’s board of trustees expressed the need for smaller learning spaces and stronger relationships between educators and students.
They said that one way to meet those needs would be for East Helena to build its own high school – which the East Helena Public Schools Board is pursuing.
As part of the Helena High School District, both Montana City and East Helena are part of the Helena High School District. About 500 of the 1,600 students in Helena High came out of East Helena. Another 250 students in the high school came from Montana City.
“No one in this room is disparaging the quality of the education that our kids receive at Helena High School,” Whitmoyer said. “It’s just that sometimes the largeness, the economies of scale get out of control to where we lose the personal touch that kids need.”
Many of the students entering Helena High from East Helena are at risk students with greater need for one-on-one relationships, he said.
“It’s really important that they feel welcomed and invited and a part of what’s going on,” Whitmoyer said.
“We know that we have a big school,” said Cherche Prezeau, vice chair of the Helena Public School Board of Trustees. “But there are ways we can create smaller communities for kids so that they don’t get lost.”
One way that larger schools can maintain the dynamic of smaller learning communities is through architectural design, said Greg Upham, assistant superintendent of Helena Public Schools.
“They take these big structures and they pod them out,” he said. “So you don’t have more than 300 to 500 students in a section at a time, and you can see everybody and it has space.”
For East Helena to build its own high school, an East Helena high school district would first have to be created.
There is a moratorium on the creation of new high school districts in the state of Montana, which means that legislation repealing or amending existing law would have to be passed for East Helena to move forward with building its own high school.
After a public meeting with community members in East Helena Monday night and earlier interaction with constituents, Whitmoyer says that the East Helena Public Schools Board has determined that there is enough community support to pursue the needed legislation.
Senator Terry Murphy (R) of Senate District 39 is sponsoring a piece of legislation that would allow for new high school districts to be created and additional sponsors are being pursued, Whitmoyer said.
Murphy could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
“Not being a naysayer, but it’s been tried before, and it’s never passed. Usually the climate at the legislature is ‘consolidate. We want less,’” said Joe Cohenour, a Helena Public Schools trustee who also serves on the board as a representative for East Helena Pub-lic Schools.
All school districts that feed students into Helena’s high schools should have a say in the plans being made to improve Helena’s public schools, Cohenour said.
Kathleen Coleman, Board Chair of Montana City School, said she was very appreciative of how inclusive and welcoming the Helena High School has been to her daughter, who attends the high school.
“It was very scary going from a small, close-knit K-8 (school) into Helena (High) with 1,600 kids,” Coleman said. “My daughter is the one that’s very shy and quiet it was very welcoming and I’ve been very impressed.”