Superintendent Kent Kultgen said he’s sticking to his guns in declining to name which elementary schools may eventually close as part of a bond proposal put before school board trustees.
The multiphase proposal, which would begin with $45 million to overhaul Jim Darcy, Warren and Central schools and add a technology center to every other, was met with criticism by a handful of residents when presented to the school board earlier this month.
They called the plan incomplete and urged the district to provide more information about certain components, prompting trustees to postpone their decision so the superintendent could present answers to the questions raised.
That presentation is set for 5:30 p.m. tonight at the Ray Bjork Learning Center, with a board decision on the bond expected at its Tuesday meeting.
At the crux of the residents’ concern is a desire for the school district to discuss future school consolidations before dedicating bond dollars for construction. Kultgen has said one or more closures must take place before the district will have funding available to operate a new middle school, another core piece of the plan.
“This board has been criticized in the past for putting the cart before the horse, and I really feel like you’re about to do this again,” parent and steering committee member Sarah Sullivan said at the meeting.
Several residents also questioned the district’s transparency in how it has presented the plan.
“I would urge you to draw the boundaries, tell us the plan front to back,” parent Kiely Keane said to the board.
Much of the current proposal aligns with construction options outlined in an operational plan Kultgen published nine months ago. In the document — a culmination of several years of facilities planning, including a $250,000 analysis by Mosaic Architecture — Kultgen also stated that school boundaries would soon need to be adjusted and that those adjustments would involve building closures.
But the district hasn’t openly discussed which schools might be closed, or initiated a process for determining so.
Kultgen listed several reasons for that in an interview last week, arguing that school closures must be guided by enrollment, for which a clear picture hasn’t crystallized.
The district currently has a school closure policy that outlines seven factors to be considered before a school may be taken offline. “Projected or actual enrollment declines and the likelihood that they will remain permanent” is listed as the first factor.
Kultgen said that policy isn’t specific enough. He wants the school board to establish a minimum enrollment figure that will trigger a closure discussion.
Doing so will take time, he said, and cannot take place before the May election, when he and steering committee members recommended the first bond of three bonds be put to voters.
As of October, four of Helena’s city schools had total enrollments of around 250 students. A fifth, Bryant Elementary, was the smallest with 211.
Kultgen has also made clear that talk of specific closures could jeopardize the bond. In steering committee meetings, he called campaigning for a bond while closing a school a “win-lose” situation that voters won’t support.
“It brings up that fear of losing your neighborhood school,” he said last week.
Kultgen said he is no stranger to that fear. School facilities have been at the forefront of his work since he was hired by the district in 2012.
Not long after starting, Kultgen named Broadwater and Central schools as targets for possible consolidation, quickly receiving community pushback. Kultgen backed away from the idea and said the situation is something he doesn’t want to repeat.
“You just don’t come into a community and say we’re going to repurpose schools,” he said. “We need a process, we need input, we need criteria.”
Sullivan, though, argues that the district has the information it needs to initiate that discussion and should do so before moving forward with a bond. That way, she said in a recent interview, voters can understand the ramifications of new construction for the rest of the district.
Sullivan said she considers herself a supporter of education and the school district: she campaigned for the recent building reserve levy and has attended all community meetings in the past few years related to facilities planning, in addition to her participation on the most recent steering committee.
But she said the bond plan as presented suggests “a staggering lack of vision” on the part of district officials.
“I feel like this is an opportunity for the school board and superintendent to offer their long-range vision,” she said. “We’ve done this for years and spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.”
She said the bond proposal doesn’t make clear which students will attend an enlarged Central School.
Kultgen has said the school may not be filled the day it reopens, but also said the expansion opens up new options for the future. He said spending millions to renovate Central to its current size would not make financial sense.
The Central situation is perhaps made more complicated because the school board, upon Kultgen’s recommendation, committed last year to reopening the school — before discussion about “right-size schools” was on the horizon.
“That decision is a pillar of where we are now,” Kultgen said.
The emergency closure forced school officials to make a decision about its future promptly, he said, lest Central families and staff were to be relocated indefinitely.
Kultgen and most steering committee members believe Central is a good site for a larger downtown school, in part because it offers a manageable lot size and a large “walkability” perimeter.
But Sullivan and others who have spoken critically of the proposal see Central’s expansion and location as suggestive of the consolidation that looms. Two of the district’s smallest schools, Jefferson and Hawthorne, are each less than a mile’s walking distance east and west of Central.
Ray Bjork Learning Center and May Butler Center — which house auxiliary programs and administrative offices, respectively — were recommended for eventual closure in the recent operational plan. A permanent home for the Project for Alternative Learning hasn’t been decided, either.
Bryant was also identified for major construction in the operational report but has been largely absent from steering committee or school board discussion.
The 75-year-old building sits on a tiny 1.9 acre lot, attended by many students from low-income families. More than 90 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced lunch in 2012-13 — by far the highest rate in the district.
In a section of the April report titled “options for consideration,” the superintendent listed construction scenarios for each elementary school and auxiliary building. Bryant is identified alongside Jim Darcy, Central and Warren for large-scale renovation or rebuilding. Neither option for Bryant would have kept the school at its current site.
In an interview last fall, Kultgen pointed to Bryant as an example of where future building investments must be carefully weighed.
“We want to maintain a great learning environment over there, but how much money do you put into Bryant, because we know that 6,000 feet is a windowless basement,” he said.
The basement currently houses a district-wide alternative learning program as well as offices for support staff, including one that was converted from a janitorial closet.
Principal Nick Radley said the current situation is not ideal, but that the school can continue operating for a while, especially if the building reserve finances some future upgrades.
“You could maybe say we are thriving in spite of the conditions. That would probably be pushing it a little bit,” he said.
However, Radley said the problems at Bryant aren’t unique within the district and advocating for a new school for 211 students would be hard to justify.
“I’d be hard-pressed to ask taxpayers to build a new school for that small of an area,” he said.
Kultgen said the Bryant facility needs improvements, but to include it in the bond wouldn’t be fair to other schools that also have basement classrooms.
At this point, any changes to Bryant are several years out, Radley said. He said all options have been mentioned, including adjusting boundaries that would send Bryant students to other schools.
“It might make sense to spread kids out. It’s hard to say. It does make sense,” he said.
Kultgen sticking to his guns
Kultgen said he won’t identify any school for consolidation, closure or repurposing before new closure criteria are agreed upon and “enrollment can tell the story.”
“I’m sticking to my guns,” he said.
Sullivan, who also chairs the Hawthorne parent council, said if putting together a long-term plan requires the district to close schools, so be it. It’s a sobering discussion she said Helena residents are ready to undertake.
“If you present a long-range vision,” she said of the district, “you will find a lot of support.”
Sullivan said recent public fear over permanent closure of Central was driven by the school’s unsettling, sudden shuttering. Now, at the cusp of a series of long-term financial decisions, Sullivan argued the climate is different.
Kultgen said that while ideally consolidation could take place before construction, the need to eliminate “displaced students” is urgent and has changed the formula. And it’s information, not wariness, that is keeping the district from initiating closure talks, he said.
Specifically, he said officials can’t know how enrollment might change once students living in outlying areas are able to return to their home school. Currently, hundreds are bused each day to schools inside the city.
How quickly and at what rate parents will pull their children from the city schools remains an open question, he said. Each city school has a different number of out-of-boundary students.
Enrollment trends in the next ten years might also deviate from numbers projected in a recent demographic report commissioned by the district, Kultgen added.
“I believe you need more information than just a demographic report,” Kultgen said. “Until we get kids back into their neighborhood schools, it’s tough to make those calls.”
Kultgen has said repeatedly that the district’s facilities problems are too complex to address all at once — a premise that has led to the multi-phase bond proposal. That complexity is due in part to a state cap on annual operating costs, which the district is pressing up against. Overall enrollment is projected to stay flat, so the cap likely won’t change.
Furthermore, solving the problems will require a combination of new construction, consolidation and boundary adjustments for the district’s 20 buildings.
“It is complicated, and I feel for the board and the superintendent for that,” Sullivan said. “I want to encourage them … I think the school board just needs to be brave.”