In a way previously unprecedented, Helena and Lewis and Clark County residents have been engaged in an at times acrimonious debate about the present and future of Helena schools. I find this unfortunate: I have friends on “both sides.” I write as a parent, taxpayer, educator, and former planning director (community; college).

What’s the Plan?

After reading IR articles and Reader’s Alley letters, and conversing with informed friends about the school bond election, it struck me that we should not be voting at this time. Since there is so much conflict and disagreement, much more planning (and transparency) should have gone into a ballot proposal whose outcome will affect so many children—now and into the future. Much more input should have been included—from both ‘sides’—in order that a fair ballot proposal, agreed upon by a majority of residents (not just a handful) with diverse perspectives as worthy of a vote, would have been prepared and presented to voters.

I believe strongly in strategic planning in a community. I’m concerned about what seems to be the lack of a public, clearly stated, long-range strategic plan about the future development of Helena-area K-12 schools. The release of a “FAQ’s…answers” statement by Superintendent Kultgen and board chair Myhre indicates recognition of parents’ concerns, and an attempt to address them. It is, too, an indirect acknowledgment that many Helenans are fearful of the consequences of the bond, thinking that there is a hidden agenda of school consolidation built into it.

Winners and Losers

The way the ballot is framed, and how people interpret what it means when there is no clear, transparent plan that takes all views and concerns into account, guarantees a divided Helena community (which should not be the case, given that those supporting opposite ‘sides’ share much in common—such as concern for their and others’ children in terms of both their education and the safety and hygienic conditions of all schools, rejecting long busing to and from schools and retaining a neighborhood quality for schools). The current conflict is socially and psychologically tragic, dividing our community in an unprecedented way: friends and families argue, and calls for boycotts of Helena businesses, owned by Helena residents, have emerged.

What to Do?

We need a path beyond ‘win’ and ‘lose’ toward a community consensus and restored community relations. A transparent community-conscious plan would provide this.

I strongly believe in neighborhood schools—they promote community identity and cohesiveness, and social benefits to students and parents: opportunity to engage in social interaction; sports, music, and other school extra-curricular activities. In my view, these benefits should be available to people inside and outside of the Helena city limits. Gradually, elementary school kids who have been embraced by their local community go on to middle school and high school, both of which are a community of communities, where students’ social and intellectual horizons expand. City and valley should have neighborhood schools.

Since all kids matter, I will vote yes for kids by voting no on the current bond. I will vote ‘no’ not because I think one argument is more compelling than the other, but because I think all of us need additional information and should be able to discuss the issues outside of election pressures. My vote will be cast with a hope that the educational and social needs of all Helena kids might indeed be met, that neighborhood schools would be fostered in multiple communities, that a more balanced proposal might be developed, that a clear, strategic plan will be created to enable this to be realized, and that civility and a holistic community consciousness would be promoted.

Our community should not have ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’ Creative thinking and compromise can enable all parents and students to be winners.

John Hart

Helena

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