Regarding your school bond, many believe that something is better than nothing. In fact, nothing can be further from the truth. School siting (opening/closing) decisions have far reaching financial and social impacts on a community. You either "pay to plan" now, or you find yourself, like Billings, "planning to pay."

Billings recently voted for $122 million in funds with freight train-like urgency due to overcrowded classrooms. Citizens were told we're 800 students over capacity now and 1,200 more students are coming. The fact is that as student population had risen, just as it has done multiple times over the past 40 years, we have fewer teachers ... we were not hiring teachers at the pace we should have due to lack of funds. It was far more a budget issue than a space issue. In fact, we have a neighborhood school, Rimrock Elementary, closed in 2001, that still sits empty right in the middle of town.

The superintendent promised repeatedly that no schools would close, and that he wouldn't open a school he couldn't afford to operate. But, reality is now setting in. We are 400 students short of the Cropper demographics enrollment projection. Last week, the district had to return over $1 million to the state. Billings will have to pass two general fund levies back to back just to open the schools, which is going to be a gargantuan political task given that it's never been done. I would say that Billings is in a very precarious situation; something will have to give soon. Will it be a broken promises with building closures, cuts to programs/academics or failed contract negotiations? To open the schools required annual cuts, and now those cuts are on top of a $2 million shortfall in anticipated revenue from enrollment that did not materialize.

Helena has the opportunity to avoid the Billings predicament. Billings decisions were made in the midst of a crisis. We refused to use tools that analyze both short and long term costs and align school demographics with budget reality. Great school planning can save millions in taxpayer dollars, and great school planning requires time be spent and tools get used to insure a data based decisions that include public input and defensible criteria. Helena has the opportunity to lead the way by using the Smart School Siting Tool and scenario planning technology that compares alternatives that align with financial forecasts.

Helena can learn from Billings. The Smart School Siting Tool encourages public entities to plan together in a way that considers the financial impact of the school site decision. Criteria can be established to make it clear when schools should be considered for closure, and when schools should be built. The values of the community can be reflected in that criteria.

I urge you to vote no on this bond, and take the necessary steps to create a community supported, sustainable long term plan for your schools that takes into consideration your values as a community and aligns them with your fiscal reality.

Kathy Aragon



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