Master facilities plan calls for significant changes to SD2

2012-12-05T23:45:00Z 2012-12-06T14:21:10Z Master facilities plan calls for significant changes to SD2By ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Boulder Elementary — like many schools in School District 2 — shares its gym space with its cafeteria. 

Students work around the folded lunchroom tables when they meet for P.E. And when they sit down to lunch, they do it in shifts because the room won't accommodate the entire student body. 

So when Principal Jay Lemelin plans picture day, he hopes for good weather because the photos are shot outdoors. Picture day in the gym/cafeteria wouldn't work because he'd have to cancel P.E. and find another space to serve lunch. Using the library would mean no class could meet there and no students could check out books. 

"There isn't a room," he said. 

Space in School District 2 is short, and the new master facilities plan — commissioned by SD2 and overseen by Billings-based O2 Architects and national design firm DLR Group — tries to solve the problem.

The study they performed calculated that the elementary district is 984 students over capacity. In other words, the district is currently housing 984 more students than it has room for under state law. 

To bridge the gap, they've recommended five options to SD2, which include proposals to build new elementary and middle schools, add classrooms to existing schools and phase out the district's portable classrooms.

The plans also would change the configuration of SD2's elementary and middle schools, moving sixth-graders up from the primary schools into the district's middle schools. 

The plans call for expanding the size of elementary gym-cafeteria combos in some schools and placing in each school a dedicated music room and art room. The plan also addresses some of SD2's deferred building maintenance, which at one point hovered around $120 million.

(However, since 2010, the community has passed two federal bonds worth roughly $20 million that will repair and update many of the most dire problems on SD2's deferred building maintenance list.)

The cost to implement the various plans crafted by DLR and O2 would cost the district between $131 million to $150 million. 

A detailed demographic study showing where SD2 students lived, where in the city they were likely to live in the future and how many would enter SD2 schools was part of the master facilities plan.

But some parents have questioned the school expansion plans and specifically question the idea that SD2 is that short on space, saying it's a convenient solution given that both companies are architecture and design firms.   

They point to the fact that Rimrock Elementary School, which has been closed twice by the district, sits empty. The Lincoln Center, where SD2 keeps its administrative offices, has unused classrooms on its third floor after the district moved its 9th grade academy classes back to the high schools last year. 

The other issue is enrollment. The district has just over 16,000 students — nearly a thousand more than it had four years ago. Over the next five years, the number of students is expected to grow to 17,600. 

As enrollment has grown, school classrooms have grown more crowded, especially at the kindergarten-through-second-grade level. It's become such a problem, district officials were required to appear for the state board of public education last summer and describe how they plan to reduce class size. 

Trustee Kathy Aragon likes to point out that SD2 had 17,000 students in 1970. Enrollment in Billings jumps and starts from time to time but over the decades has remained roughly the same, she said.

Ten years from now, enrollment in SD2 is projected to slowly drop again from its peak of 17,600. 

While the size of the student body in Billings hasn't changed much since 1970, the classroom space requirements for the district have. 

State law now limits the number of students per classroom — 20 kids for kindergarten to second-grade classrooms; 28 students for third- to fourth-grade classrooms and 30 students for fifth- to sixth-grade rooms. It also dictates the amount of space districts must use for special education students.

The state's switch last decade to requiring all-day kindergarten also put a pinch on elementary school space, where rooms that once accommodated two kindergarten classes a day now hold one. 

In short, the district may have the same number of students as it had 40 years ago, but it's now required to use more space to educate them.

The flip side to the space problem is the staffing issues it creates. Smaller classes that require additional classrooms also require additional teachers. The district has no way to pay for more teachers.  

O2 and DLR solved the space problem by recommending the building of new schools and more classrooms. So far, no one's been able to solve the funding problem. 

Still, crafting a master facilities plan has been an important step for the district — and it's a first. 

SD2 has never had a study that looked at each individual building in the district, cataloging the faults and virtues of each and recommending what each one will need to be viable into the future. 

But it's not the first building study commissioned by the board. Or even the 10th. The last facility study commissioned by trustees finished just last year. 

In fall 2011, the district contracted with the design firm Fielding Nair in what was supposed to be the first steps of a modern, 21st-century face-lift to many SD2 schools.

Instead, the planning never got past the first stage, where Fielding Nair reported what the community wants from its schools: to emphasize post-high-school job readiness. It then offered ideas on how to adjust current buildings to accommodate that desire. 

The Florida-based company specializes in designing “creative learning communities” that are conducive to learning in the 21st century and that make sure that schools reflect the wants and needs of the community.

Before that, one of the biggest studies commissioned by the board never to be used was a comprehensive 20-year facilities plan that was produced by a special board committee of almost two dozen parents, community members and district staff in 2005.

The plan itself was commissioned when a construction bond for a new high school failed with voters. Trustees wanted a plan to figure out how to use and maintain its existing facilities more efficiently for the next two decades.

The plan was not school-specific and was filled with a number of general recommendations. After its adoption by the board, it was never put to use.

Trustees are confident the DLR-O2 master facilities plan will get plenty of use. Part of the district's contract with the two firms calls for regular updates to the plan and to the demographic study over the coming years. 

And each school will get its own plan-based website, where parents and community members can go online to see just what condition schools are currently in.

The district will hold a community meeting to showcase the latest parts of the master facilities plan and to give the public a chance to weigh in at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the Lincoln Center board room.

"Participation is very important to us as we continue to progress through our planning process," Superintendent Terry Bouck said.

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