Hope for successful school bond seen in aging buildings

2013-10-18T00:00:00Z 2013-10-19T08:34:04Z Hope for successful school bond seen in aging buildingsBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

In a sense, they're pity blankets. 

One winter, an official from the state Office of Public Instruction, who is also a teacher at Shepherd Elementary School, visited McKinley Elementary in Billings to do some training. 

She spent time in the basement where the school library sits, along with small, windowless classrooms for specialized instruction. McKinley has just one thermostat and the building is heated entirely by steam. So on cold days, temperatures in the basement dip below 60 degrees. 

It was noticeably cold the day she visited and she was surprised to see students still going through their activities in that environment.  

"She went back and told her students about it," said Burt Reyes, McKinley's principal. "Her class made blankets for our kids. We've got 'em all over the building."

Beginning Friday, the Yellowstone County elections office mails out ballots giving voters the option to approve or reject a $122 million bond that would improve, remodel and renovate most of the elementary schools in the district, and build two new middle schools.

McKinley and its sister school Broadwater Elementary would be completely renovated and receive new additions. 

All over the district, years of accumulated deferred maintenance have created frustrating problems for teachers and custodial staff members. 

School funding law in Montana is designed so that funds for building maintenance are to be raised by voter-approved building reserve levies. 

In Billings, the school board's reluctance over the years to place building reserve levies on the ballot and the community's reluctance to vote for them led to a deferred maintenance bill for SD2 facilities that topped out at $120 million in 2010.

The last building reserve levy passed by Billings voters was in 2001. 

If voters approve the bond in this election, SD2 plans to replace windows and plumbing at many of the elementary schools and update heating and cooling systems. Roofs will be repaired or replaced and electrical systems will be overhauled. 

For example, classrooms at Newman Elementary have no light switches. Each room has its own breaker box and teachers flip the breaker to activate the lights. 

"That's how we do it," said Jan Skovgaard, Newman's secretary. "When subs comes, they don't know what to do."

At Meadowlark Elementary, the Sept. 7 storm that brought 1.31 inches of rain in 45 minutes, blew copious amounts of water through the windows in its north wing, wrecking window sills, sealings and the carpet. 

"They really need replacement," said Stacy Lemelin, Meadowlark's principal.

Finally, SD2 will use the bond to build two new middle schools. That will allow the district to move sixth-graders up to middle school, freeing up much-needed space in the elementary schools. 

"We have serious needs in our district," Reyes said. 

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