East Helena voters overwhelmingly decided Tuesday to take the next step toward building their own high school.

A total of 1,969 voted to let the school district further explore the possibility of building a high school, while 939 voted against it, according to Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer. Voters have not yet been asked to provide any funding or approve construction for a high school. 

“Even though there’s a two-year window for us to do this work, the community can rest assured that we’ll quickly and efficiently begin to do that research and that work for them,” Whitmoyer said.

The district has considered building a high school for decades.

The Montana Legislature passed a law this year to allow elementary districts to consider expanding to a high school district if they have an enrollment of more than 1,000.

The first step required the approval of the East Helena School Board, and the ballot measure approved Tuesday asked voters for permission to further explore the possibility of a high school. The district will have to take the measure to a third vote for a bond to make a new high school a reality sometime in the next two years.

Whitmoyer said the district will start research on the benefits and costs of building a high school and present the community with updates on potential locations and the bond amount.

If the district were to build a high school, state law would require students to gradually transfer to the new district to minimize the impact on existing schools. 

District leaders say steadily growing enrollment in the elementary schools would support a high school and allow students to stay in their community. Whitmoyer said that if it is built, the high school would likely be Class A.

Total enrollment at East Helena schools is at 1,233, which is approaching the district’s 1,300 student capacity.

The district is currently implementing a $12 million bond passed in May to build a new elementary school for first- and second-graders, add classroom spaces at the middle school and update the cafeteria at Radley.