School board on Central

The Helena School Board meets in this file photo.

The Helena School Board of Trustees voted 5-2 Wednesday night to hold a bond election in June.

The bond will include funding to renovate and upgrade Central school, plus changes to the 10 other elementary schools at a total cost of around $70 million.

Details of the renovations to the 10 other schools have not been ironed out by district officials, but it will look similar to a previous proposal that included a new Jim Darcy, mostly new Smith, renovations at Broadwater, Kessler, Hawthorne and Bryant, plus additions and renovations at Rossiter, Jefferson, Warren and Four Georgians.

The proposal received mixed community support, with some people applauding the board’s decision to touch all elementary schools but holding reservations about future consolidation.

“I feel like this is a $75.6 million march toward school consolidation, and I will not support that,” Karin Finley said.

Trustees Terry Beaver and Betsy Baur voted against the motion, and newly elected trustee Kristina Huffsmith was absent.

Beaver remained adamant that investing millions into the nearly 100-year-old Central school building was not “fiscally responsible.”

He said the building had failed, renovating it in an adequate fashion was not possible due to its age, and it would set a bad precedent for spending millions on the next school that failed.

Plus, he said investing that much into a building did not mesh with the board’s long-term goal of consolidating schools.

“We are attempting to keep too many buildings open, and it’s at the expense of kids,” Beaver said.

Baur said she opposed expanding Smith Elementary to have a capacity for 500 students.

Other trustees championed rebuilding Central as the option that minimized student displacement, which was one of the board’s goals for any facility plan.

The $7.8 million price tag of upgrading Central tacked on to the outlined plan for the 10 other elementaries pushed the plan nearly $4 million above the elementary district’s $75.6 million bonding capacity. The board tasked Superintendent Kent Kultgen and other district officials with shaving projects away from the other schools to bring the bond down to $70 million.

Some trustees said they didn’t want to maximize the bonding capacity because it would leave no money for a future bond election that would improve the middle schools.

“I think it’s shortsighted in recognizing our middle schools are going to need some significant assistance down the road,” Trustee Cherche Prezeau said.

The district’s current facility vision includes a bond election in about three years that would finance construction of two new high schools. Then, around 2021, another elementary bond would finance the renovation of the existing high schools to house middle school students and the middle schools to house elementary students.

Prezeau, Aidan Myhre and other trustees voiced concern that the nearly $26 million of bonding capacity that would be available to the district in 2021 would not be adequate to cover renovation costs.

Shaving off too many projects in this first bond would mean limited improvements for elementary schools.

“If we really want to address the students, we’re going to have to spend some cash,” Kultgen said.

This $70 million bond would leave the district about $31.5 million of bonding capacity in 2021, if state law regarding school bonds does not change.

A $70 million school bond would come with an annual cost to taxpayers in the elementary district of roughly $70 per $100,000 of taxable value on their home.

This bond election is scheduled to take place on June 18, which Kultgen said gives the district time to plan and coordinate with private individuals to campaign in favor of the bond.

A special board meeting will have to be held so trustees can amend the bond election to reflect exact language.

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Alexander Deedy can be reached at 447-4081 or alexander.deedy@helenair.com


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