A new supercommittee charged with reviewing the Helena school district bond proposal convened Wednesday, holding the first of nine meetings that officials hope will serve to refine the proposal and build consensus before it’s put to voters.
The 36 school staff, parents and community members chosen for the group sat in a wide rectangle in the Warren Elementary School gymnasium, watched by a couple dozen members of the public.
While the meeting was largely informational, committee members asked questions about the group’s purpose that hinted at the difficult decisions, including a recommendation to consolidate schools, which it will soon address.
“I decided this is probably the most important thing I’ve ever done,” group facilitator Cindy Lewis said in her introduction to members.
“My goal is to help this group succeed,” she said.
“What is success? To put together the very best plan,” Lewis said, “what is best for kids, what is best for this community.”
The committee includes one teacher and one parent from each of the district’s elementary and middle schools. Seven community members will also take part, including former state representative Hal Jacobson, Helena Citizens Council member Sumner Sharpe and outspoken parent Sarah Sullivan.
Superintendent Kent Kultgen pledged Wednesday to “step back” from committee discussions and serve an informational role.
He said Lewis, former executive director of the Helena Education Foundation, brings to the group years of knowledge of the Helena community as well as a “dedication to schools.”
The meeting featured presentations by Kultgen, Assistant Superintendent Greg Upham and Business Manager Kim Harris.
In his remarks on the district’s academic vision, Upham said the Helena schools have been deficient in certain academic resources for many years. He didn’t beat around the bush in noting the implication of his comments.
“To get resources into the buildings to students, we’re going to have to consolidate,” he said.
Upham specifically referred to the drawbacks of having specialized teachers work across multiple small schools, saying that the model is inefficient.
“If we want newer schools, we’re going to need fewer schools,” he said.
“When you start talking about school closures, that’s a whole other issue in itself. But we’re here. To run from it would be cowardly,” Upham said.
The current bond proposal would use $45 million to expand Warren, Jim Darcy and Central schools and add a computer lab to every elementary and middle school. The district has around $73 million in bonding capacity and no outstanding debt, Kultgen told the group.
“If we’re debt-free, you can probably say that’s because we’re facilities poor,” he said.
But limited operational funds and enrollment that’s projected to remain flat prohibits the district from just building its way out of overcrowding.
“This is what makes our situation so complex,” Kultgen said. “If you want to build another new school, what do you have to do? Take another one off.”
He said Helena’s 11 elementary schools have been sustained “on the backs” of middle school enrollments.
Members ask: What is work group’s purpose?
After the presentations, committee members expressed appreciation for creation of the group while interrogating its purpose.
“Is our role … to investigate, refine and support what the board has proposed, or reevaluate whether or not the bond you proposed to put out has the support of the community?” at-large member Mike Casey asked.
Similarly, Broadwater teacher Siobhan Hathhorn asked Kultgen if the proposed work at the three schools was “predetermined” by the school board.
“If the issue has been predetermined, I feel we’re being commissioned as salespeople,” added Monica Tranel, a parent representing Ray Bjork Learning Center.
Kultgen said he wants the group to focus on “refining” and “vetting” the proposal already on the table.
“Does that mean we can’t talk about other options? Absolutely not,” he said. “The last thing I wanted to do was bring together a group and say, ‘Here it is again, let’s approve it.’”
Sherri Haller, a teacher at Jefferson School, said her colleagues appreciate the chance for renewed discussion of the proposal, “because a number of schools that will be impacted by the bond weren’t involved with it.”
At Bryant, teacher Abby Kuhl said staff are feeling the pressure of upcoming consolidation decisions.
“We feel like we’re on the chopping block, and we’re a little nervous about it because we want what’s best for our kids,” she said.
During a public comment period at the end of the meeting, school board trustees Betsy Baur and Libby Goldes thanked the committee for its upcoming work.
“The board really respects the time that you’re going to be putting into this process and your commitment to public education in Helena,” Baur said.
“We’re looking forward to what you all come up with,” Goldes added.
The group’s next meeting will take place Wednesday, April 2, at Jim Darcy Elementary. The meeting will last from 6 to 8 p.m. and include an opportunity for public comment at the end.
The district has also established a website for information about the work group at www.helenaschools.info.