Linda Filpula and Shawnda Zahara-Harris

Laurel superintendent Linda Filpula, left, and high school principal Shawnda Zahara-Harris talk about the proposed bond for the district to expand career and technical education Friday, September 22, 2017.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

One thing is for sure after a pair of Laurel school bonds failed last week.

"We still have all the same problems today that we did yesterday," said superintendent Linda Filpula.

A combined $52.5 million ask would have helped alleviate overcrowding and upgrade facilities in elementary schools and the high school. At a school trustee meeting Monday, bond supporters floated suggestions for garnering more support in the future.

"They liked the plan, but they didn't like the price tag," said Jacob Schreiner, who helped lead a pro-bond group.

That group received praise at the meeting, though several people noted it's relatively small size.

"I think 'Yes for Laurel's Future' did more than could be expected of them," said school board chairman Doug LeBrun. 

Trustee Connie Love said it was difficult to balance the role of trustee with advocating for the bond. Trustees and school officials, while working for the district, can only offer education about a ballot issue; they can't advocate for it. 

"It's kind of a fine line," Love said. "I know I could've done a lot better job. I was somewhat nervous about how I would come across."

She emphasized that the board needs to focus more on public communication, year round.

"I heard from a lot of people, 'the only time you guys say anything is when you need money and there's a problem,'" Love said. "We could have done better. And as a board, we have to do better at talking to people."

Jason Nicholson, who advocated for the bond, cited a conversation with a bond opponent who wanted to hear more from trustees and school officials. 

"He felt like the buck was just kind of passed. It didn't seem urgent to him," Nicholson said.

The plan

The bond plan featured an overhaul of career and technical education facilities, a new elementary school and the jettisoning of the district's current administration building, all designed to help deal with enrollment growth that has exceeded its projected growth.

Laurel trustees and school officials held months of public meetings with architects and school planners, identifying priorities and winnowing down building proposals that would meet goals.

Beefing up career and technical education was a top priority. The current high school doesn't have much physical room to expand; it's hemmed in by athletic and parking facilities.

South Elementary School would have been converted into a career and technical education center, similar to Billings' Career Center. The school has green space officials hope could be used for an agricultural program.

A new elementary school for grades 3-5 would have helped ease pressure on the crowded middle school, removing fifth-graders. Laurel has an option to purchase about 30 acres of land just off East Main Street on Eleanor Roosevelt Road for the new school.

Kindergartners who attended South Elementary would have moved to West Elementary. Renovations would have added classrooms and a gym to accommodate grades K-3. At the high school, a second gym would have been added and interior remodels would increase classroom space.

Graff Elementary School, currently home to grades 3-4, would have been repurposed as an administrative building. The current administrative building at 410 Colorado Avenue would have been sold. The plans also addressed dozens of deferred maintenance projects.

Dan Story said the extensive planning process probably helped the bond. 

"I think there would have been a lot larger discrepancy if you did not have the buy-in from the people involved in that," he said. 

He suggested targeting more people who didn't vote in the election in the future, rather than trying to swing no voters to yes. 

Schreiner noted an explosion of online comments after the bond vote. 

"The common thing was people's beef with the school district," he said, sometimes dating back more than a decade.

Some people suggested splitting up the plan into an elementary-only or high school-only vote. Some suggested working to get more teachers involved in bond advocacy. And some suggested beefing up the school district's social media presence. 

But the meeting didn't get into technical solutions to grapple with crowding before another potential bond attempt.

"We will, obviously, not let this end here," LeBrun said. 

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.