Voters in the East Helena area rightly have an opportunity to decide whether they want local control over the high school education provided to students in their community. And while the proposal to build a high school in East Helena comes with numerous pros and cons, there may never be a better time than now to make it happen.
Currently, East Helena Public Schools provides public education to students in kindergarten through eighth grade and sends its roughly 350 high-school-age students to Helena to earn their diplomas. But the Montana Legislature recently passed a law allowing elementary districts with enrollment of more than 1,000 to become high school districts, which opened the door to the possibility of a high school operated by the East Helena school district.
Residents of the East Helena area voted 68-32 percent in November to research what it would take to build a high school owned and operated by their own school district.
The school district determined it could build the new school for 500-600 students at a cost of $29.5 million. While the new school would account for some student population growth, we believe it would need to be expanded someday to meet the needs of the rapidly growing area.
For taxpayers with a home valued at $200,000, the construction bond and the operational levy used to operate the East Helena school would amount to a tax increase of about $30 per month for the next 20 years. But East Helena voters shouldn’t make this decision solely based on the cost, because they will likely be paying more high-school-related taxes whether they vote to build the new school or not.
East Helena residents are currently paying taxes to operate the high schools in Helena, and those costs will probably grow as officials continue to grapple with issues related to the aging buildings and increasing enrollment. If a bond to improve or expand Helena's high schools is approved before East Helena voters pass their own bond, East Helena residents will have to continue paying for the Helena schools even if they decide to open their own high school later.
And we doubt many East Helena residents would be willing to fund a new high school if they have to keep paying for the old ones.
We believe the school districts in Helena and East Helena both have the ability to provide a quality education to East Helena students, albeit in very different ways.
Naturally, Helena's larger district would offer a wider range of courses, more advanced classes, better sports teams, and access to more expensive technology and facilities. But students enrolled in East Helena might have an opportunity to continue taking advantage of certain offerings in Helena, and the less-tangible benefits of smaller class sizes, a feeling of belonging and the pride that comes with a local high school cannot be ignored.
This isn’t a question of which school district is better. It’s a matter of what East Helena wants for its children and its community. If building a new high school is the best way to honor East Helena’s unique values and ideals, now is the time to make it happen.
We doubt East Helena voters will get an opportunity like this again.
This is the opinion of the Independent Record editorial board.