Helena City-County Building

Helena City-County Building

Thom Bridge, Independent Record

Lewis and Clark County's commissioners have declined to endorse a proposal to help fund a study of Helena's public school facilities. 

The community, however, would support a well thought-out plan, Commissioner Mike Murray said.

Nancy and Alan Nicholson, a local businessman who developed the Great Northern Town Center, led a presentation Wednesday on the need to hire a team of consultants for an independent evaluation. 

“We need good information,” Alan Nicholson said. 

He also noted the need for good demographic information for now and to help predict the future.

Alan Nicholson envisioned a consultant that would have no expectations of assisting in design or construction of school facilities. Nancy Nicholson advocated for a neutral third party. 

Alan Nicholson estimated the school district requires between $200 million and $300 million for all of the facilities’ work that needs to be done.

School district officials have not provided an overall figure to address the needs that may exist.

“We need to do something to our school facilities,” Alan Nicholson said.

But the costs involved in addressing school needs prompted Commissioner Susan Good Geise to question taxpayers’ ability to fund all that’s asked of them through ballot issues.

“There is a tolerance to what people can afford to pay,” she said.

“That’s why I’m so completely convinced we have to change the way we do business,” she added.

Geise was also uncertain of the value in seeking out-of-state consultants and said the county commission’s planning for a new detention center and the solid waste study on behalf of the county and city of Helena involved companies from other states.

“Neither of those products has been well-received by the general public,” she said, noting that she didn’t disagree with the results of either study.

The commissioners didn’t dispute the value in joining school district representatives and city of Helena officials for discussions as the district plans for how to move ahead after voters rejected a $70 million bond issue 54 percent to 46 percent this year.

The bond would have addressed an array of school district needs that ranged from renovation to new construction.

The school district has organized a meeting for Nov. 5 with county officials along with those from the cities of Helena and East Helena and the East Helena School District. 

Commission Chairman Andy Hunthausen said the school district’s invitation to discuss school facilities may result in a more comprehensive planning process.

“The beginning place is that process though,” Hunthausen said. “We need to get together as a community.”

However, Hunthausen said he didn’t see his role in talks with the school district as telling them that they are erring in their planning.

“It isn’t our role to go and take over their community responsibility,” he said.

Alan Nicholson disagreed and said people lobby the state Legislature and make their cases.

“You’re elected to look after the interests of Lewis and Clark County,” Nicholson said and added that he believed the commission was obligated to do that.

Hunthausen said he didn’t disagree it was the commission’s duty to address the county’s interests but also said it’s the school board’s job to be the district's experts.

Businesses locate in Helena, Alan Nicholson said, because of access to police and fire protection among other municipal services, which provides them with lower insurance rates.

He then questioned why the school district would look to build outside of Helena and forego the advantages offered by being within the city limits.

Geise disputed his argument that there are many issues with the school district’s needs that the county can and should have a say in.

“A lot of people are not satisfied with the product that’s coming out of the schools,” she said of the education students receive and her belief this contributed to the school bond’s defeat.

Students “have less information than their parents and their grandparents,” she said.

Part of a school’s job is to produce good citizens, she continued and added, “I’m just not seeing that."

“Our public schools should benefit our entire society,” Geise said and noted she planned to discuss the focus of education when county, school and city officials meet in early November.

Murray defended the school district and the education students were receiving.

Al Knauber can be reached at al.knauber@helenair.com

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I am a staff writer at the Independent Record covering primarily city and county governments.

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