Helena school trustees heard about the successes of the Montana Digital Academy and approved two contracts at a meeting Tuesday night, one for a superintendent search and another for educational planning for the next two years.

The Montana Digital Academy, created by the 2009 Legislature, is designed to provide an opportunity for students to make up core classes and take unique classes like Irish language and oceanography. It also exposes students to subjects not offered in their local schools. The school operates all year, and classes are available any time of day, any day of the week.

Jason Neiffer, curriculum director for the completely online school, said the number of students involved “goes well beyond our wildest dreams.”

It’s for students needing an extra academic challenge or those who’ve had deficiencies in classes.

“We have a lot of students that have something that’s unique, so we have to play with the model to determine where a student goes,” Neiffer said. “We try to find some flexibility both for districts and for students.”

He used the example of a student who may be ill and in a hospital awaiting a transplant or an extreme athlete who is gone during a particular season.

There are 53 classes currently offered with over 100 teachers involved teaching about 2,600 students throughout the year from 220 schools around the state.

Teachers are paid a stipend in addition to their contracts, as sports coach are. They receive $500 minimum for each class and $100 per student, which maxes out typically at 25.

“We don’t guarantee employment, because it’s based on enrollment,” Neiffer said.

There are fewer than 50 students taking academy classes on a full-time basis. In Helena, students can take 2.5 credits toward graduation.

After some discussion, the board unanimously approved a contract for education planning services with Mosaic Architecture and subcontractors, BrainSpaces and DLR group, not to exceed $250,000 over the next 24 months.

Kim Harris, business manager for the district, recommended the contract be approved.

The plan is to develop a road map to pursue the goals and delivery strategies for the coming 15 years, and Harris told the board it will affect the next 50 years.

The program will identify the facility requirements, technology, infrastructure and resources required.

The work will come in four phases: research and review, visioning and discovery, brainstorming and solution and then refinement, which will ultimately lead to a bond campaign.

Ben Tintinger with Mosaic says the first phase will begin immediately by setting expectations, defining needs and assessing educational programs.

“The first phases really set the milestones,” Tintinger said.

The next phase will define the path, he said. The third is where the planning comes in, and the final phase includes getting community buy-in for a bond campaign to build the facilities and implement designed programs.

Trustee Libby Goldes said the planning is needed not only for the students and the schools but for the entire community.

Veteran board member Terry Beaver voiced reservations.

“I don’t feel stable in what we are doing or what’s being presented,” he said.

Beaver described the planning as a “pie in the sky education endeavor,” saying in the end the community could have a plan without a successful bond and spent $250,000, but he ultimately voted in favor.

“There are no guarantees,” Tintinger said, adding that his team will rely on experts within the district to be a driving force.

Only one person spoke during the public testimony portion of the meeting.

Barbara Rush, retired teacher, was not in support of spending the money on education planning. 

She said the district should take what they have and what they know and make incremental changes and improvements.

Rush also spoke against hiring McPherson and Jacobson, a firm out of Nebraska, to aid in the district’s search for a new superintendent.

“I think you can do this on your own and save the taxpayers $15,000,” she said.

The board reviewed proposals from five firms and interviewed four firms. They liked McPherson and Jacobson because of the willingness to have an open and transparent process and active national recruitment. They also were drawn to the guarantee that for two years, if the person hired leaves the position for whatever reason, they will repeat the process at no charge — except actual expenses.

Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or alana.listoe@helenair.com

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