Community members gathered Thursday night and voiced opinions on School District 2's growing master facilities plan and its call for new school construction.
Trustees and district leaders had hoped for a large turnout.
"The intent is to allow our public to ask questions," Superintendent Terry Bouck said.
The master facilities plan is being conducted by Billings-based O2 Architects and national design firm DLR Group. Representatives from both companies were on hand.
“This is a critical moment for our school district,” Trustee Greta Besch Moen said. “This is the first time we’ve had a comprehensive systemwide master plan. Our community should be encouraged and reassured.”
Roughly 50 parents, grandparents, community members and School District 2 staff members gathered at the Lincoln Center board room from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Bouck thanked the community for their support.
Bouck said more than 400 people have attended the community workshops in the past five months.
After a brief summary of the master facilities plan and planning process presented by Bouck, Lew Anderson, executive director of facilities, outlined the district’s facility assessment, a 113-page report detailing 2.5 million square feet of space.
The assessment, Anderson said, is not an appraisal of quality of education but of space and capacity to provide a good education to students.
A handful of people addressed the board, planners and community members in the room with their support of the plan as well as their questions and concerns.
Candi Beaudry, city-county planning director, asked the school board and planners how the locations of new schools being built will be selected.
Bouck said once a draft plan has been submitted by Feb. 4, the next phase would be researching locations with demographers and city and county planners.
“I’m a firm believer that you have to know where you’ve been and where you are before you know where you’re going,” Trustee Connie Wardell said.
She said a decision where to build a new school can’t be made by considering where the student-age population is presently. Rather, she said, planners need to look where the child-bearing population lives. There, she said, is where the elementary-age kids will be once the schools are built.
Trustee Kathy Aragon said transportation costs would also be a large part of the locations considered.
Retired SD2 teacher and Lockwood School Board trustee Don Reed pointed out the unexpected population growth in places like Sidney and Williston N.D. “We need to look at that.”
Reed asked if the projected enrollment rates took into consideration the high school dropout rate of 25 percent.
“Accreditation is a minimum standard, and we are way behind that,” he said. “What do our kids need to best succeed and not just get by?”
School board members said the dropout rates are taken into consideration in the plan and that they are making efforts concurrently with the Graduation Matters program to solve the dropout problems.
Wardell was most surprised by the seemingly uniform support she's heard for reconfiguring SD2 elementary schools to a kindergarten-through-fifth-grade model.
"I thought there would be a lot of push-back on that," she said.
The master facilities plan outlines five options for the district, including proposals to build new elementary and middle schools, add classrooms to existing schools and phase out the district's portable classrooms — most of which would have to happen if the district reconfigured its elementary schools to the K-5 model.
The plan also calls for expanding the size of elementary gym-cafeteria combos in some schools and placing in each school a dedicated music room and art room. It also addresses some of SD2's deferred building maintenance.
Earlier in the day, trustees met with DLR and O2 staffers to discuss the format of Thursday night's meeting.
Trustees spoke at length on how best to present their statements to the crowd in relation to the master facilities plan process. An agenda item called for them to make "statements of support."
Trustee Pam Ellis balked at the suggestion. She said at this point, the study isn't even finished and that it would be "completely inappropriate" for trustees to opine on the study before it's been formally approved by the board in an open meeting.
Kim Olsen with O2 Architects told Ellis that the community feedback the planners have received reflects a profound lack of faith in the trustees' ability to come to a consensus on the master facilities plan.
They had hoped that by encouraging trustees to speak out at the meeting in favor of the process it would show the community that the board was together on the issue.
"What we're asking you to show is, do you have faith in the process?" said Olsen.
Trustees agreed they would be more comfortable speaking to the process rather than the plan itself, and the item was reworded on the agenda.
Reporter Carmen Daye Irish contributed to this report.