Only one race contested for SD2 board

2013-03-28T17:00:00Z 2013-10-21T08:36:08Z Only one race contested for SD2 boardBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Of the three races for seats on the School District 2 board open this May, only one will be contested. 

Kevin Toohill, a parent in the district, will run against incumbent Connie Wardell for Zone 7 on the far west side of Billings.

"I feel like the time is right," Toohill said. 

The seat is a three-year term, and Toohill didn't want to wait until 2016 to run. 

"The board and the district are at a transition point," he said. 

Toohill wanted to be a part of the planning process happening now and to offer his expertise as the board makes weighty decisions about building new schools and mapping its future. 

"I can contribute to that," he said.

Toohill started his own business in Billings — a mapping company — and studied community planning in college. He has a master's degree in planning. 

He's a big believer in using solid data to make decisions and has seen the school board move in that direction over that past couple of years. 

"That's key," he said. 

Last summer, the board began crafting a master facilities plan for the district, a first for SD2. Through the process, the district now has detailed reports on each of its school buildings and demographic study showing where the district is likely to grow over the next decade.

The plan also shows a massive shortage of classroom space in the district. 

Overcrowding has become a serious issue for the district. SD2 has roughly 800 more students in its schools than what state law allows, according to the facilities plan conducted by national design firm DLR Group and local firm O2 Architects.

This year, around 16,000 students attend SD2's 29 schools. A study performed by national demographic firm Cropper GIS shows enrollment growing to 17,500 students by 2022.

Wardell, who's been an active part of this recent planning process, acknowledges Toohill's background and applauds him for it. 

However, after three years on the board, she's earned her experience and climbed that steep learning curve, she said. 

"I'm up to speed," she said. 

She wants to continue to work on the master facilities plan to see it through to the end. She's eager to help get tens of millions of dollars in bonds passed this fall so the district can build new schools. And she wants to see through adjustments to school boundaries the district plans to undertake in the coming years. 

Looking back over the last three years, she points to the hiring of Superintendent Terry Bouck, the undertaking of the master facilities planning process and the attention brought to state funding of schools as the board's major accomplishments. 

School finance is an area in which Wardell feels right at home. 

"I understand school finance better than probably anyone else on the board," she said. 

Running unopposed are trustees Greta Besch Moen in the Heights and Lindy Graves on the West End. 

"I think the public is well-served by having choices," Toohill said. "That wasn't my motivation (to run), but I think there's value to it."

When Wardell ran three years ago, she faced two opponents. She's happy to face off with a contestant again. 

Traditionally, school district trustee races have run uncontested. 

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 of a voice on the board.

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. Two additional trustees represent the high school district.

Most years, many of those seats run uncontested. In effort to address that, the Billings Chamber of Commerce put on a workshop in January it called "School Board Candidate School."

It was well-attended and drew praise from business leaders and parents. Toohill was one of the attendants. 

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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