A School District 2 committee took a tour Tuesday afternoon of six possible sites for two proposed new middle schools.
The committee will make its final recommendations to SD2 trustees Monday night.
The group, which includes district officials, city and county planning representatives, RiverStone Health and other public bodies, has been engaged in the site selection process since May.
On July 1, the committee met for about four hours to narrow down a dozen possible sites to four. Using a ranking system, the group selected two sites in the Heights and two in the West End, although it didn't completely eliminate two other Heights sites.
Much of the discussion at that meeting focused on figuring out where students live now and where they will be in 10 years. A consultant with Cropper GIS, a demographic firm hired by the school district, consulted by phone with the group.
This year, enrollment at each of SD2's four middle schools will be 980 students. By 2020, according to the demographer's report, it will be over 1,000 students per middle school.
On Tuesday, a contingent of 16 people, including Superintendent Terry Bouck and Lew Anderson, SD2 executive director of facilities, hopped on a yellow school bus to view six properties in the Heights and two on the West End. District trustees Allen Halter, Greta Besch Moen and Teresa Stroebe were along.
At some stops, committee members got off the bus to take a close-up look. At others, they just looked out the windows.
The first stop took the group to the top-rated Heights site, at the corner of Bench Boulevard and Barrett Road, adjacent to district-owned property where Bitterroot Elementary sits, as well as Little League baseball fields.
The property, which totals 18 acres, is a former gravel pit that is filled with construction debris. It contains three ponds and an abundance of trees.
Anderson suggested one of the ponds could be kept for irrigation and as a storm drain. The district could also share parking with the ball fields, he said.
Bouck said putting the middle school next to the elementary school would allow a nice connection between the two. Middle school students could do grade-level tutoring, he said, and fifth-graders moving up to middle school could experience an easier transition.
The east side of the property also is adjacent to a bike path, Anderson said.
The second stop took the group to the 20-plus acres owned by Sartorie Farms, the second-ranked site that now grows corn. The land, adjacent to the first property, wouldn't be as easily accessible to the elementary school, Anderson said, but it also doesn't have a lot of trees to remove.
The group also viewed properties at Bitterroot and Barrett and then at Mary and Hawthorne, the third- and fourth-rated choices. The last parcel, which faces Hawthorne, would sit on Hawthorne, which would serve as a frontage road if the Outer Belt Loop is ever constructed.
The bus then drove out to the West End, to show the group potential school sites adjacent to the Career Center, at Central Avenue and 39th Street West, and 56th Street West and Grand Avenue.
The Career Center site, ranked second of the two West End parcels, has the least acreage available to build a school, Anderson said, less than the 15 acres recommended to the committee.
"The biggest problem is it leaves us with no opportunity to expand the Career Center and use it as a comprehensive high school," Anderson said.
Moen added that building a middle school would prevent any future partnership with City College at Montana State University Billings, which sits adjacent to the Career Center.
Moen also expressed concern about the size of the lot and its proximity to Will James Middle School, which is within about one mile of the Career Center.
On the other hand, she said, the 37 acres at the corner of 56th and Grand would be big enough to add an elementary school later, if a that decision was made.
That property, now a large field, is in an area that is seeing a housing spurt, said City Planning Director Candy Millar.
"There's a lot of potential for growth out here," Millar said.
After the 2 1/2-hour tour, the group met in the board room at Lincoln Center. Bouck asked the group if what they had seen contradicted or cemented their earlier thoughts on rating the properties.
Jeana Lervick, exective director of the district's Human Resources Department, said the tour had reinforced her feelings for the ranked properties as they stand.
A suggestion was made to whittle down the number of properties under consideration in the Heights. Anderson suggested they keep at least three properties on the table, for the sake of negotiating a sale.
Committee members came to a consensus to keep the top three contenders and drop the property at Mary and Hawthorne.
Since the district owns both West End properties, negotiating isn't an issue. The group took a straw poll and agreed that the top-ranked property at 56th and Grand is what they would recommend to the board.
"I think they both come with their own set of challenges, but I think the 56th and Grand location fulfills more what we were told to look at for 20, 30 years down the road from now," said Sondra Baker, transporation coordinator for the district.