Lockwood assembly

Eileen Johnson Middle School principal Gordon Klasna addresses some of the 380 students in Lockwood for an assembly in March 2016.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

Gov. Steve Bullock signed into law Wednesday a bill that would allow Lockwood to create its own high school district.

The move caps a multi-year saga between Lockwood and Billings Public Schools, the district high-schoolers from Lockwood's K-8 district attend.

School District 2 was one of the only groups to oppose this year's bill, a significant change after contentious proposals in previous legislatures. But SD2 officials were glad to have resolution going forward.

“I think one of the advantages of the bill … it’s not something that’s going to be continuing to come back at us every two years,” said SD2 board chairwoman Greta Besch Moen. “We'd end one legislative session and immediately go into a ramp-up for another legislative session.”

The new law allows K-8 districts with more than roughly 1,000 students — currently only Lockwood, East Helena and Missoula Hellgate — to vote to create their own high school districts; after an initial vote, the districts have to pass a bond within two years to build a new school. If either vote fails, districts have to wait five years before a new high school vote. 

The bill sailed through both houses with overwhelming support. 

The law leaves out some of the most divisive components of previous bills, like an asset split between high school districts. But SD2 still objected to Billings voters not having a say on a district split and said that the possibility of a split could complicate long-term planning. 

Besch Moen said the district would continue operating using its strategic plan until a Lockwood high school district actually happens. 

“We as a school district need to continue to plan for growth,” she said. 

Lockwood superintendent Tobin Novasio had initially guessed that it would be a few years before a high school vote came forward as the bill advanced through the Legislature. But he said there's been more early community support for the idea than he anticipated.

“It may be on the ballot next spring,” he said. “The push needs to come from the community rather than the school.”

Based on changes in tax base and student enrollment, SD2 Chief Financial Officer Mike Arnold estimates that Billings would loose about $1.6 million in budget authority in its current budget. His projections show a 2.65 mill increase in SD2's school year budget for Billings taxpayers. Previous Gazette projections and state projections also predicted a modest increase. 

A series of meetings beginning in 2015 between Billings and Lockwood trustees were contentious early, inflamed by Billings' redistricting process that removed a high school choice provision that applied only to Lockwood students. Later meetings were more cordial but reached little resolution between the districts.

SD2 officials have repeatedly questioned the willingness of Lockwood voters to pay for a high school. 

Lockwood overwhelmingly passed a bond levy in 2006 to build a new middle school and update existing facilities. Since then, of eight levies put up for a vote, a building reserve levy in 2013 and a technology levy in 2012 passed. Bond levies for a sewer system failed four times before passing.

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.