School District 2 looks at next step with building plans

2013-01-22T20:30:00Z 2013-01-23T09:29:04Z School District 2 looks at next step with building plansBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

School District 2 officials are looking toward the next step in the master facilities planning process after a vote at Monday night's board meeting cleared the way for new school construction. 

The plan trustees selected calls for building a new middle school in 2015, a second middle school in 2017 and a new elementary school. Maintenance projects to update most of the district's existing elementary and middle schools also are included.

Phase 2 of the plan, which would have added updates and additions to the district's high schools, was not adopted by the board. But trustees pulled a Phase 2 project that called for improvements to Broadwater Elementary and added it to Phase 1. 

The plan trustees approved was the most aggressive — and expensive — of the three options presented to the board Monday night. The plan will cost $158.3 million, and the district will have to put a bond before voters to get the money.

However, the plan is not final. 

"If we need to, we'll make changes," Chairwoman Teresa Stroebe said. "There's still room for community input."

The building options are part of a master facilities plan commissioned by SD2 last summer that's being developed by Billings-based O2 Architects and national design firm DLR Group at a cost of $250,000.

The two firms will take the plan voted on Monday and move it one more step by creating a draft plan that the board will vote on at a special Feb. 4 meeting. 

Following the draft plan, trustees will meet again further down the road to approve a final plan. At each step, revisions and changes will be made, Stroebe said. 

She hopes members of the community — who have been involved so far in the process — will continue to speak out and call for the changes they want to see in the plan.

"It's important to have these discussions," she said. "If that's happening, we're going to be in a better place."

The issue now facing the board is figuring out how to pay to operate the new schools and the expanded existing schools once the work is done. 

Under the option approved by the board, SD2 would still be $1.8 million short the money it needs to staff all the new space even with better funding from the state and if mill levies regularly pass.

Stroebe acknowledged that there was more work to do. She's hopeful that between tweaks to the plan and better support from the Legislature and the community, the district will have the funding it needs to staff the schools. 

Regardless, the board had to take action on a plan Monday night. 

"We had no choice," she said. "We could not sit there."

She was referring to the overcrowding issues currently faced by the district. More than 90 SD2 classrooms — most of them kindergarten through second grade — have a student-teacher ratio considerably higher than what the state allows. 

In a study performed by O2 and DLR, researchers found that SD2 had roughly 800 more students in its schools than what state law recommends. 

Last summer, SD2 leaders appeared before the state board of public education, where they were reprimanded and required to show the steps they would take to alleviate crowded classrooms. 

One of those steps was the creation of the master facilities plan. 

Superintendent Terry Bouck said the trustees needed to see the process through. Having a master facilities plan on the books is vital for the district. 

Stroebe encouraged the public to stay involved in the process and to continue giving its input. 

"We still need the community's support," she said.

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