The first of the two new middle schools to be built by School District 2 over the next two years will likely start in the Heights.
The district's planning and development committee, which is made up of SD2 board trustees, voted unanimously Tuesday night to recommend to the full school board that the Heights middle school be built first.
The SD2 board, which meets on Jan. 20, will make the final decision.
Trustees have spent the last two months — since voters in Billings approved a $122 million construction bond in November — figuring out and then weighing the pros and cons of where to build first.
Sites for the new middle schools were secured last fall. The Heights middle school will be built at Bench and Barrett roads next to Bitterroot Elementary School. The West End middle school will go up at 56th Street West and Grand Avenue.
At Tuesday night's meeting, the four trustees in attendance talked about wishing the two schools could be built concurrently. But in order for the district to keep construction contracts local and to have the time to save the money needed to operate both schools, they chose to build them a year apart.
The Heights school is projected to be finished by August 2016. The West End middle school would be finished and open by August 2017.
"We expect these middle schools to open one year apart," said Superintendent Terry Bouck. "We are very confident in that."
Trustees also addressed the district's geographical divisions and spoke earnestly about the need to be unified.
"We are one district," said board chairman Allen Halter. "We are concerned about all our students."
In deciding where to start, trustees brought in representatives from the city and county and other community officials.
They looked at factors like annexation and zoning needs for the two sites, what utilities were already available and which sites were construction-ready. They also looked at traffic and road access issues and how easy walking or biking to the site would be for students.
Both sites still need to be zoned and annexed into the city and both need access to local water services.
However, the Heights site had much better pedestrian access and seemed to be more school-ready than the West End site. SD2 likely will have to add six new bus routes to get students to the West End middle school. The Heights middle school will only need two new routes.
There was also the consideration of growing enrollment and which part of the city would need first the additional space a new school would bring.
Trustees and district staff crunched numbers and found both areas had significant needs. Lew Anderson, facilities director for the district, pointed to Castlerock Middle School in the Heights as a potential tipping point.
The school is over-capacity now and in two years' time will be absolutely busted at the seams, he said.
The committee agreed and so Trustee Lindy Graves made the motion to build first in the Heights. The vote was unanimous and had very little discussion. Everyone seemed satisfied with the process and with the decision.
"We've done a pretty good job" getting to this point, Bouck said.