SD2 trustees change their minds on school construction timeline

2013-03-05T15:00:00Z 2013-03-06T09:20:07Z SD2 trustees change their minds on school construction timelineBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

In what seems like a bit of buyer's remorse, two trustees on the School District 2 board said Tuesday they had changed their minds on a vote they cast during Monday night's meeting. 

The vote, a 4-3 decision to build two new middle schools and an elementary school over the course of the next few years, will likely be reversed when the board reconvenes on March 13 to vote again.

Trustee Travis Kemp called board Chairwoman Teresa Stroebe on Tuesday and told her, after thinking it through overnight, "he'd had a moment of clarity," she said. 

But he felt like it was the right thing to do, Stroebe said. 

"He knows he's gonna take some heat for that," she said. 

But not as much heat as he thought.

"I got more positive reactions than negatives ones," Kemp said Wednesday morning.  

Kemp talked about sitting at the meeting Monday night and growing increasingly weary with the debate as the hours dragged on. He said by 11:30 he was ready to simply take a vote and end the meeting.

In his haste, he voted for the wrong the option, he said.

Kemp, along with Connie Wardell, Pam Ellis and Lindy Graves, had voted to implement a plan that would call for the construction of three new schools within the next few years as part of a $160.2 million bond.

The plan voted on by the board differed from the one recommended by district administration. Monday night's motion moved up the district's construction timeline by including the new elementary school in its first-phase plans.  

"I know that the elementary school is important, but just not right now," Kemp said.  

The plan proposed by administrators and many of the consultants hired by the board, advocated for the construction of the two new middle schools first and then the construction of the new elementary school at a later time. 

With Kemp now expressing his desire to change his vote, those trustees wanting to build the new elementary school sooner rather than later would shift to the minority.

Wardell later on Tuesday also expressed her desire to Superintendent Terry Bouck to change her vote. 

Following board rules, Kemp and Wardell have the option to change their vote because they had voted with the majority.

"I'm actually glad they're reconsidering it," Bouck said. "That's what most of our consultants and myself had recommended."

Late Tuesday afternoon, Graves sent an email to Bouck and Stroebe suggesting that rather than re-vote on March 13, the board should wait until after the May 7 elections. 

On the ballot will be two mill levies that would be used to hire new teachers and bolster technology in the elementary and middle schools.

Wardell, Graves and Greta Besch Moen are up for re-election this May and would also appear on the ballot.

"I feel that the situation is just going to get worse and we will just get entrenched more," Graves said. "A pause would let us center on the levies, which is very important at this time, and we will also know what the state is going to do."

The issue of crowded classrooms, new schools and how to address the problem has been an emotionally fraught topic for trustees and community members for years.

Parents in downtown neighborhoods have seen their schools close and reopen and close again over the last decade because of what they see as poor planning by previous boards. Many worry that quick expansion by the district now would result in more school closures in their neighborhoods in the near future.

On the other side of town, parents are tired of having to shuttle their elementary school children to three different schools because of space shortages at the schools they're assigned to attend on their end of the city. They hope a new elementary school on the West End could solve some of those problems. 

Compounding the issue is the fact that 99 of the district's classrooms have a higher student/teacher ratio than what the state allows. The district currently is under pressure from the state public board of education to address the overcrowding or risk losing its accreditation. 

A new master facilities plan was commissioned by the board eight months ago to address these issues. The plan shows a steady climb in district enrollment over the next 10 years, with numbers then leveling off in the 2020s. 

To address that growth and the current overcrowding, the facilities plan recommended moving sixth graders up to middle school to free up space at the elementary schools. It then recommended building two new middle schools to handle the incoming sixth graders and updating or expanding many of the district's other elementary schools.

Finally, it recommended building a new elementary school. The plan doesn't name a location for the new elementary, but trustees like Ellis and Graves have indicated that it would best serve the district on the West End. 

It was that issue that pushed Graves to make his motion Monday night, calling for the new elementary school to be included with the new middle schools in the first phase of SD2's plan to build and update schools. 

Bouck cautioned trustees on the difficulties of opening three new schools in quick succession and recommended the board move building the new elementary school to the second phase of the plan.

Leo Hudetz, the district's chief financial officer, told trustees the district could afford to open and staff two new middle schools. Adding on an elementary school at roughly the same time would probably put the district in the red, he said.

The fact that Kemp and Wardell changed their minds from Monday night "might be because they took a close look at those recommendations," Bouck said. 

If the board votes on March 13, the next step would be crafting a bond proposal that Bouck could take to the community to gather input. He'd also like to run a professional survey to learn what the community thinks about the bond and the various projects. 

"It's the best way to gauge whether we've hit our mark," he said. 

The soonest the bond would go before the public is this fall, in October or November, he said. 

In the meantime, the district must convince the community to support its May mill levies. 

"The first order of business is to get that mill levy passed to get those teachers," he said. 

 

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