Billings' growth over the past 30 years has created some often-confusing attendance boundaries that end up with some students being bused past their neighborhood schools to far-off schools with more room.
But that's likely to change by the end of the 2014-15 school year.
Billings School District 2 serves nearly 17,000 students and is in the early stages of a redistricting effort that will redraw the elementary and middle school boundaries, hopefully by the end of next spring.
"This whole process is something that's so long overdue for the school district and the community," said Kevin Toohill, a member of the SD2 board of trustees. "It's a good opportunity to balance out something that's out of whack."
Superintendent Terry Bouck said the district hasn't completed a comprehensive redistricting "in 25 or 30 years," when Billings' population was closer to 82,000. It's now more than 109,000, an increase of nearly 34 percent.
As the number of students has increased, the district has had to find room for them wherever they could fit. In many cases, that has meant students have had to travel past their crowded neighborhood school to a distant school with more room.
The district is getting some guidance from the recently completed facilities master plan, which lays out plans for current and future buildings, and a demographics study that has population and attendance projections for all district school through at least 2022.
With that, and money from a voter-approved bond to build a pair of new middle schools and upgrade other schools, SD2 officials say they have what they need to improve the boundaries.
"We've seen the growth and we need more room," Bouck said. "We're not just asking 'Where are the kids at now?' We're also asking, 'Where will they be five or 10 years from now?'"
While the school board will have the final say, it has appointed a 26-member committee of Billings residents to make boundary recommendations.
The initial criteria include: moving as few students to new schools as possible; balancing the utilization and attendance of each building; creating contiguous attendance boundaries and eliminating satellite pockets that sit within other schools' boundaries; avoiding splitting areas such as apartment complexes or subdivisions; maximizing walkability and transportation efficiency when possible; looking at the impact of, and encouraging, socioeconomic diversity; defining boundaries as safe as possible for students to travel in; striving for each elementary to feed 100 percent of its students into the same middle school; and plan for future growth.
"I don't think there's anything more important than our kids and school is a huge part of their lives," said Kristin Lundgren, the committee's vice chair. "With our community growing the way that it is, I think it's a great opportunity to give back and position our community for that upcoming growth."
Those involved with the process said they understand redistricting has the potential to upset some parents, especially when it comes to kids potentially changing schools as a result.
Part of what Bouck and the trustees want is to keep the process as transparent as possible. Meetings will be open to the public, an informational website has been set up through SD2, channels of communication with the committee will be open and there will be several public meetings to gather information and opinions.
"I understand that people will be upset," Lundgren said. "If they are, it's probably because a decision is being made that impacts their lives. The intent is to solve a problem that we have in our community."
As Billings' population continued to grow throughout the '80s, '90s and 2000s, schools began to swell with students.
Finding room for those new students sometimes led to what district officials call satellite pockets, small islands of attendance to one school within another school's boundaries.
For example, Central Heights Elementary, at 120 Lexington Drive, has boundaries that run from 19th Street West to near 29th Street West and Central and King avenues. The boundaries then take a break and resume from Shiloh Road to past 72nd Street West between Grand and Central avenues.
Boulder Elementary, which is mostly centered around the area near Zimmerman Trail down to Grand, also has pockets extending as far west as Molt Road.
"It's from growth; it's from lack of space," Bouck said. "We're sending kids all over the place. It's amazing."
When SD2 in 2012 hired Ohio-based Cropper GIS — the same group it has hired to help in the redistricting process — to conduct its demographics study, eight of the district's 22 elementary schools had more than the recommended 400 students.
The study predicted that 12 schools would be above that number by 2022.
In a message to the community on the SD2 website, Bouck wrote that the district already has 422 more K-8 students than the buildings are supposed to hold.
Busing students outside their neighborhoods cause hardships on students, and on families, Bouck said. "They increase our transportation costs, and they dismantle the neighborhood schools that we value."
The demographics study, which Cropper finished in 2013, was completed side-by-side with a facilities master plan, from DLR Group and O2 Architects.
Combined, the two give SD2 a road map to deal with space, facilities and enrollment projections.
In November of 2013, voters in Billings approved a $122 million construction bond that, among other things, provides for major renovations to McKinley and Broadwater elementary schools and the construction of new middle schools, all of which are recommended in the master plan.
The elementary renovations will add room for about 100 additional students at each of the two schools. Construction on the first new middle school, in the Heights at Bench and Barrett roads, is set to be finished by August 2016. The second middle school, on the West End at 56th Street West and Grand, will wrap by August 2017.
The completion of the new middle schools will also allow the district to move forward with plans to permanently move all of its sixth-grade classes to middle schools, which will help fill the two new schools and free some space in the elementary schools.
"This team will work over the next seven to nine months together and what I expect is that by the end they'll bring maybe two scenarios for the board," Bouck said.
Trustees approved the 26-member committee at a July meeting. Cropper GIS recommended the group from a pool of nearly twice that many applicants.
Matthew Cropper, founder and president of Cropper GIS, told the trustees the committee members were chosen to represent all geographical areas in Billings.
"The best team is one that comes from all over the area ...," Cropper said at a July 7 meeting. "We want to have different perspectives on what different areas are like throughout town."
He also said they were chosen for their objectivity and not as representatives or advocates for any single school.
Cropper recommended Kristine Keller act as chair, with Lundgren as vice-chair, which the board also approved.
"We need a team of people that can work together, compromise and represent the entire district's children, not just their area," Bouck said.
The committee will start meeting monthly in September and is expected to present the board with its final options in March of 2015.
SD2 has already set up a link on its website as a hub for information on the redistricting process, which will be updated regularly as the committee works.
Bouck said he'd also like to see the committee meetings, which are open to the public, televised.
On Sept. 8 and then again this winter, the committee will hold a community forum to present plans and information to the public, as well as gather comments and recommendations.
"Our committee will expect people to ask questions and express their opinions," Lundgren said. "Parents have a lot of common sense ideas that we need to hear. I really welcome anybody to share their thoughts."
She added that it's likely to be a data-driven process, using information from the facilities plan, the demographics study, the City of Billings, SD2 and numerous other resources.
Toohill is one of four trustees assigned to act as a liaison between the committee and the board.
"If the process works out right, it stays balanced going forward so we don't get back into reactions like the (satellite pockets)," he said. "As the community changes, I think we need to do this more regularly."
Once the board makes the final call on changes, it will begin redistricting the attendance boundaries for SD2's trio of high schools.
"It's what our community needs," Lundgren said. "Change is always difficult but change can also sometimes be the very best thing for us."