The Billings Chamber of Commerce launched its Education 2020 Committee on Wednesday morning and outlined its plan to help improve the economy through improved education in the Billings area.
Working with community and business leaders and officials from School District 2, the chamber will look at better using education research, finding ways to improve public education funding and encouraging qualified candidates to run for the school board.
"It's something to start getting people engaged," said John Brewer, chamber president.
In its announcement Wednesday morning, the chamber presented findings from a series of surveys it sent out to its members regarding current attitudes and ideas surrounding the school district.
One of the most telling answers found that 92 percent of the respondents wanted the district to move away from zone-based board representation and move to a more at-large model.
"This is something we're going to be studying in depth," Brewer said.
In 2003, voters approved a measure that created trustee-represented zones within the district to give areas traditionally under-represented on the board, such as the Heights and the South Side, more board representation.
For most of SD2’s history, all trustee seats were at-large, meaning if there were three open seats, the three top vote-getters were elected.
But that changed with the 2003 vote, dividing the elementary school district into seven zones, each with a representative on the board.
However, in the decade since, most trustees on the board from the historically under-represented areas have either been appointed or run unopposed for their seats.
As part of Education 2020, the chamber is offering a school board candidate school, a single 2 1/2-hour session led by speakers from local and state education groups and past trustees.
The class is free and open to those interested in running for the board or curious about how a public school board functions. A morning session is set from 7:30 to 10 a.m. on Jan. 29, and the evening class will go from 5:30 to 8 p.m. on Jan. 30.
Brewer is hopeful the class will act like a pipeline for getting more people involved with the district.
"We're looking for leaders who can steer the vision," Brewer said.
The chamber also announced its support for the master facilities plan being undertaken by SD2.
The plan goes before the board for adoption on Feb. 4 and calls for updates, additions and construction of new school facilities in Billings. The plan also calls for implementing a three-year middle school model and converting the elementary district from a K-6 to K-5 schooling model.
The chamber moved forward with the Education 2020 initiative because members believe almost universally that quality, community-supported public education is vital to the economic well-being of Billings, Brewer said.
"Our workforce starts at the earliest age," Brewer said.
Billings students will be powering the state's economy as they graduate. As they're better educated, the area's economy will perform better, he said.
Brewer also noted that recruiters for the biggest employers in the city — the hospitals, refineries and big businesses — are consistently asked about the quality of schools in Billings.
The better the schools, the easier it will be for these businesses to bring in top professionals, he said.