Central School parents and staff were back in front of the Helena Public Schools Board of Trustees Tuesday night asking for a solution -- soon.
It’s been three years since Central School faced an emergency evacuation order after an engineering report warned of serious structural damage in case of an earthquake.
At that time, Central students were “temporarily relocated” from their downtown campus to Lincoln School, 1325 Poplar St.
One option put on the table Tuesday -- moving Central students to Ray Bjork School -- was met by stiff opposition from the Early Childhood Special Ed Preschool program at Ray Bjork, which is also shared with Head Start.
Both Central and Ray Bjork schools deal with the school district’s most vulnerable, at-risk students.
Trustee Sarah Sullivan agreed to head up a task force of board trustees, parents and community members to immediately explore Central School options to bring back to the board.
In opening the Central School discussion, board chairman Aidan Myhre said it’s time for the school district to reinvigorate its facilities discussion, which it put on hold after the school bond failed in June 2015.
Parent council spokesperson Jennifer McKee said that Central parents “are asking the board for a new analysis of student placement.”
When the students moved, parents and staff did not know it was going to be a long-term displacement, she said, adding they have had 1,100 days of experiencing destabilizing events.
Central School is a Title school with the second highest poverty rate in the district, said McKee.
It also has the highest concentration of homeless students, which is three times the district average, she said. It also has twice the concentration of children with special needs than the district average.
“This (population) is why we love our school,” she said.
“We left our home of a century,” she said, and moved across town to a facility that has less than half the space.
However, “the number one problem is the location,” she said. There is no rational basis for them being placed there, she said, because it’s miles from where Central School children live and has numerous barriers to cross -- a major one being a busy railroad track.
The dislocation has had a “tangible effect on the population,” she said. Since moving they’ve had three different principals and two-thirds of the teachers quit or moved, with five more doing so this year.
There’s been an unprecedented impact on student attrition, she said, and is still waiting to get reports from the school administration on this.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” she said. “Waiting is not an option.”
Ray Bjork has been discussed as an option, she said, adding that it gives them “no pleasure in discussing uprooting another school.”
Chelsea Segrest, a Central School area resident who has been an early childhood special education educator, opposed displacing Ray Bjork students, saying that since the preschool moved from the Neighborhood Center to Ray Bjork, “we made some magnificent changes.”
“I want to advocate for Head Start and preschool children with disabilities,” she said, adding that the building has been retrofitted for small children, has wheelchair accessible hallways and ramps, and appropriate bathrooms near classrooms.
Also speaking in opposition was Elfriede Schuety, a retired special ed preschool educator who worked for the school district for 25 years.
She retraced the preschool’s history. “We have moved seven times,” she said. “We moved three consecutive years.”
The preschool has been in its current location seven years, she said. Access is easy and safe and the playground is the right size for preschool children and suited for special ed students.
These building and playground improvements took a long time to install, she said, and shouldn’t be uprooted and torn out.
Preschool educator Peggy Hollow-Phelps also opposed the move, saying 100 percent of the Ray Bjork preschool students are in special education programs or live in poverty. “Some are homeless.”
The total student use of the building, including a separate Gifted and Talented program, is 470 students, she said. “Everyday Ray Bjork is a hub of diverse learning opportunities.”
The improvements to the building started eight years ago to modify it for this particular population.
“The cost to take out and replace that equipment for an elementary population would be a waste of time and money already invested! she said.
“We can do better. During this critical time of community building and moving forward, why would we want to ignite a firestorm of controversy by displacing more students?”
“We don’t want to take away from one group of students,” said Myhre.
Citizen Barbara Rush told the board that Head Start is a federal program and questioned that the program was housed at Ray Bjork. The district’s first priority should be its own K-12 students, she said.
Central parent Darby Bramble told the board she was moving out of the Central School area because “the future of Central is blank.”
Her twins are ready to enter kindergarten and 100 percent of the kindergarten staff is new.
“I’m not part of Balkanizing,” she said. “I’m asking for action and a creative solution.”
Teachers Rob Freistadt and Amy Casne-Fetz both spoke of the demoralizing situation for Central staff, resulting in high turnover.
“We need hope,” said Casne-Fetz. “We have no hope.”
Chere Jiusto, executive director of Montana Preservation Alliance, said that Central School was known as “arguably the best school” in the district several years ago because of its amazing teaching staff.
She called the current situation “unacceptable,” adding that children are not in a good learning environment.
She renewed MPA’s offer to help with moving forward with a Central School solution.
Citizen Anna Furshong called for an earthquake retrofit of the building, which had been done for other school buildings in the district. “Let’s go forward with getting the school inhabitable.”
Myhre suggested the possibility of rearranging school boundaries and redistribution of students.
However, Central staff and parents opposed the idea of Central being closed and redistributing the students to various schools.
Trustee Tyler Emmert said the only quick solution would likely involve a private business buying the building, retrofitting it and then renting it back to the district, which may not be financially feasible.
Emmert said the district needs to start talking to local legislators to make school facilities a funding priority in the upcoming Legislature.
McGee suggested the discussion also needs to take place with the Congressional delegation.
Trustee Sanjay Talwani asked if there were ways to explore finding funding from various parts of the budget to deal with a short-term solution, such as stabilizing the Central School building and then exploring long-term solutions with the future bond issue.