Voters turned down the $70 million infrastructure bond proposed by Helena Public Schools that took years to develop.
“Needless to say, we are disappointed that the bond did not pass,” Superintendent Kent Kultgen wrote in a statement. “It’s been a long process to get (to) today and we are grateful for the extensive public involvement on the bond. The majority of the community told us with their votes that they want something differently.”
With only provisional ballots left to count, the unofficial election results put 58.35 percent of voters against the bond and 41.65 percent in favor of the bond.
“I think it’s extremely disappointing,” school board chair Aidan Myhre said. “I think the community understands our facility needs are significant, and I think they also support doing something better for our kids. But what the solution is is unknown.”
The unofficial results showed 14,833 people cast ballots, putting voter turnout in the mail-in election at 45.58 percent.
The $70 million school bond would have allocated money for a new Jim Darcy, new Smith and mostly new Warren. It included $8 million to fully renovate Central School.
The bond also included renovations at Broadwater, Four Georgians, Rossiter, Jefferson and Bryant Elementary schools. A single point of entry and a technology lab would have been built at Hawthorne. It also included $2 million for a district-wide communication system.
The nearly decadelong process to develop a school bond included input from an architecture firm, several steering committees, over 160 publicly noticed meetings and a bond proposal approved by the board in June 2014 that was canceled about a month later.
After the latest bond was approved by the board in February, it became so contentious that it split a community with a reputation for repeatedly supporting schools.
Proponents for this bond said it was a necessary step for addressing aging elementary schools, but opponents said it unfairly allocated money between schools and ignored middle school facility needs.
Myhre said the board will step back and listen to the community about a bond but will now focus primarily on academic initiatives.
“Our elementary schools are suffering right now. The facilities of our district are suffering. But the community's voice was pretty loud that they didn’t like what we proposed after really trying to listen hard for seven years and over a hundred meetings,” Myhre said.
She said the school board’s facility committee would start meeting again in July, but with a different task. The three-member committee played a major role in developing the $70 million bond, but Myhre said when they meet next, the conversation will focus on general facility needs and avoid bond discussion.
She said the full board will also not discuss a bond at its July meeting.
“I don't think we’ll start talking about another bond for quite some time,” she said.
Kultgen took a different tone in his statement.
“We will reflect heavily on this outcome, gather input and move forward because, unfortunately, the facility challenges are real and our students need better schools in which to learn,” he wrote.
Darryl James, who sat on the campaign committee that fought against the bond, said the group is still committed to seeing an alternative bond put forward.
“From our perspective there is absolutely no cause for celebration,” he said. “It’s a very, very difficult position for those of us opposed to the bond to be in. We appreciate the community has been very thoughtful in this decision and recognized the need to have a broader planning process that takes into consideration the needs of all kids across the community.”
“Now the hard work begins,” he said.
Ellen Feaver, co-chair of the committee leading the campaign that tried to pass the bond, said in a statement that the group was disappointed the community didn’t support a bond that would have improved all 11 elementary schools.
“We are thankful for all of our great volunteers,” she wrote. “It’s now time for everyone to come together, leave disagreements aside and move forward to create better learning environments in our schools.”