Elementary bond proposal is best way forward for school district

Helena IR Your Turn, by the Helena Board of Trustees

After years of community conversations and district analysis, the Helena School Board took an important first step this week in the long process of tackling pressing facility needs in our elementary schools. We trustees voted unanimously to present an elementary bond to voters this fall. If the bond passes, 41 percent of our K-5 students will learn in new or remodeled schools at Jim Darcy, Central and Warren by 2016. In addition, every K-8 student will have access to adequate technology by fall 2015.

This particular elementary bond proposal is the right thing to do for the children in our community. Our deliberative process began in 2007 with an intensive two-year facility review that illuminated extensive needs of our school buildings. This is not surprising since the last elementary bond was in 1977 resulting in Four Georgians School. We knew that our bond proposal needed to address current needs, and create school buildings that would last for generations of future students.

Through innumerable hours of public meetings, we’ve gained deeper insights into the interconnectedness and complexities of the operating budget, facilities and student achievement. We thank the hundreds of community members who took time to participate on advisory committees or attend meetings to share your stories, thoughts and concerns over the years. It is through public input and perspectives that we modified proposals along the way.

Solving Problems

As a board, our prime objective has and always will be to decide what is best for children in our vast Helena school community of 8,000 students. Making a bond decision by prioritizing needs was imperative as there is more work to be done than our bonding capacity would allow at one time.

One thing is very clear: that lengthy bus rides are not compatible with student achievement. Also, many students leave class early each day to catch bus rides home. Bringing students back closer to their home is an important objective. We are able to solve this problem by building a new, larger school at Jim Darcy and by remodeling Warren.

The hundreds of students displaced when Central was closed March 2013 for safety reasons need to move out of their temporary quarters as soon as possible. The Helena School District is committed to maintaining an elementary school in the heart of our downtown where schools have occupied that site since Helena’s earliest days. The opportunities offered to our students at this location are just a short walk away from the school grounds.

The board resolution calls for a new Central Elementary School, including the demolition of the old Central School and Seventh Avenue Gym. It is the board’s view that the current facilities, although rich with history, caused concern for student safety and the new location would allow better parking and bus areas as well as larger outdoor play areas for children. We recognize the importance of maintaining the historical characteristics and look forward to working with the city as we design a new school that fits into the downtown historical community and provides a state-of-the-art learning facility for generations of elementary students.

To ensure our students are college and career ready requires the district to strategically invest in technology beginning in the elementary school. Overall, the district’s technology infrastructure is lacking, especially in the elementary schools.

We will install robust wireless systems in all K-12 facilities by fall 2014. Computer labs provide students with technology for whole classroom instruction. Desktop computers provide more reliable connectivity and eliminate battery charging required by wireless tablets.

Unfortunately, in most cases our current elementary and middle school facilities do not have adequate infrastructure or space for computer labs. The proposed bond includes adding or improving Technology Centers at elementary and middle schools.

Lastly, the importance of addressing aging infrastructure was highlighted when the substandard conditions at Bryant were identified. With the smallest footprint in the district, walk zone challenges (railroad tracks, interstate, Cedar and Montana Avenue, which meant that half of the students took the bus to school) and the lack of a building site in that area, the decision to redraw boundaries and close Bryant was made. This was a challenging decision as a change of this magnitude is difficult.

The time comes during any process when a decision needs to be made. We could kick the can down the road and continue to postpone a bond proposal as has been suggested by some. The board believes it’s time that we ask our community to invest in state-of-the-art schools, which will support student learning for years to come, and be visual testaments on how the Helena community supports education. We ask you to learn more about the Elementary Bond proposal that will be put before the voters this October.

Libby Goldes, Libbi Lovshin, Betsy Baur, Terry Beaver, Ellen Feaver, Aidan Myhre and Cherche Prezeau make up the Helena School Board.