Helena Public Schools is starting an $8 million project to build secure entries and update technology to make its elementary and middle schools safer.

The money to complete the project is part of a $63 million bond that will also be used to build three new schools. Assistant Superintendent Greg Upham said the updates will take three to four years to complete, but will control public access and add new technology systems to provide reliable communication and immediate notification from the principal’s office to classrooms.

At Warren Elementary, the first school to be updated, the district is in the process of building a vestibule that will only allow a visitor into the doorway of the building before a school employee verifies why the person is visiting. Each school will also move from a traditional lock-and-key setup to a keyless entry with magnetic fobs. The technology will allow doors to remain open during certain times or days. If there’s an emergency, staff can immediately lock the doors across the building or district.

The district is implementing a single system to control the phones, intercom, emergency notifications and bell. The existing system is breaking, and no parts are available to fix it. Other technology is no longer supported by the manufacturer.

Some money is also set aside to add video conferencing systems in classrooms. The system would provide a teaching tool more interactive than a textbook or movie. Teachers would be able to set up a video conference with a classroom or professional across the world, allowing students to see a different culture or have specific questions answered in real time. 

Kalli Kind, facilities administrator for Helena Public Schools, said it will take several years to complete because the district can only put out a few bids each year before the market is saturated. Because most of the work can't be done while students are in school, the district only has the summer months to hire subcontractors. Kind said it's a popular time for contractors to have plenty of work and submit less competitive bids. If the district staggers the project, fewer bids will encourage subcontractors to be more competitive and the district will ultimately save money.

Kind said the district started with Warren because it could be completed while students were in school, but the next schools will be the largest in the district, including both middle schools, Rossiter and Four Georgians. 

"We're focused on impacting the greatest amount of students as soon as possible," she said. 

This summer, the new communication system will be implemented so the central office will be able to lock down schools with the same system at the touch of a button.

"Once a school comes online they're connected with all the other schools as part of that integrated system," she said. 

While the bond can’t be used to make safety and security updates at the high schools, the district had planned to use other district funds. But state revenues came in lower than expected and triggered a series of cuts to patch holes in the budget. The Office of Public Instruction eliminated $19 million from its budget over the next two years, which reduced Helena Public Schools’ budget by $500,000. Upham previously said those cuts made it impossible for safety and security updates to happen at the high schools as planned.

“We have sidelined those projects until we’ve found another funding source for that,” he said.