Helena City-County Building

Helena City-County Building

Thom Bridge, Independent Record

A proposal to study the Helena school district's facilities drew support Wednesday from a majority of the city commission but also illuminated differences of opinion.

Nancy and Alan Nicholson, a local businessman who developed the Great Northern Town Center, have been meeting with city officials as well as the Lewis and Clark County Commission to seek support and funding for an independent evaluation of local schools.

They said they want to see a team of consultants hired for a third-party evaluation, who would have no expectation of being involved in construction or design projects resulting from their evaluation.

The Nicholsons met with the county commission Wednesday morning. Alan Nicholson said on Thursday afternoon he believes the commissioners were supportive of a study and based that conclusion on a conversation with county commission Chairman Andy Hunthausen.

Neither the commission nor Nicholson expected that the commission would make a decision Wednesday, Hunthausen said.

"He was just bringing an idea to the table," he added and noted that this was the first the county commission had heard of Nicholson's proposal.

The question to the county commissioners was whether a facilities study was something they wanted to explore, Nicholson said.

The county has a growth plan and should have a voice in whether school locations are supported by that document, he said.

Because it's uncertain if the school district will agree to a facilities study, no specific amount of money was requested from the county commission, Nicholson said. 

And while Nicholson questioned building schools in the Helena Valley and outside of the services offered within the city limits, he said he would vote for a school bond if the proposal was acceptable to the public.

City Commissioner Katherine Haque-Hausrath said she met with Alan Nicholson, who said if the city supports the concept of a school facilities assessment that it should also consider helping fund the effort.

Her support for helping with the cost hinged on whether the city had funds available, she added.

Most of the commission has indicated it wants to be engaged in talks with school officials on the district’s future plans, Commissioner Matt Elsaesser said.

While he indicated interest in helping pay for a study if the cost isn't too expensive, he also said he wanted to wait until after an upcoming meeting with school officials before deciding.

The Nicholsons told the Lewis and Clark County commissioners on Wednesday the anticipated cost for an assessment would be between $200,000 and $300,000.

A meeting will be held on Thursday, Nov. 5, beginning at 1 p.m. at the Montana School Board Association office at 863 Great Northern Boulevard involving officials from the county, Helena, East Helena and the school district.

School district officials have been planning for how to proceed with seeking community support for funding school facility renovation and new construction after a $70 million ballot issue failed in late June on a 58 percent to 42 percent vote.

They also have plans for six listening sessions that begin with the 6 p.m. session at Ray Bjork Learning Center Gym, 1600 Eighth Ave., on Nov. 9.

Planning for the school district’s future has created sharp debate and polarized the community.

Commissioner Andres Haladay said he too would support being a part of a school district planning effort if the process were to start anew.

Commissioner Dan Ellison had reservations and said he’s heard that about three-fourths of the people that the city commission represents don’t have children in the school system.

“The school board is an elected body, and I don’t believe it’s the city commission’s role to tell that elected body what it should be doing,” Ellison said after the city commission’s administrative meeting.

Ellison questioned whether funding a study was what those who elected him to office expected of him and noted his hesitancy to spend city money on a proposal he had not heard about until the commission’s discussion.

Alan Nicholson has estimated the school district’s facilities need between $200 million and $300 million of improvements. School officials have not discussed an overall figure for needed improvements.

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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