SD2 trustees to decide Monday on future of master facilities plan

2013-03-03T23:00:00Z 2013-03-07T09:03:16Z SD2 trustees to decide Monday on future of master facilities planBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

It's decision time for the Billings School District 2 board. 

Trustees will decide Monday how much and what parts of the master facilities plan to roll out, in what order and how best to structure the bonds that will pay for it. 

"It's going to take a lot of hard work Monday night," said Superintendent Terry Bouck. 

To help, representatives from DLR Group, O2 Architects and Cropper GIS will attend to answer trustees' questions. The three firms were hired by the district last year and created the new master facilities plan.

As trustees prepare for this next phase, Bouck is trying to stress that the plan is flexible to the needs of the district and the wants of the board and community. It's open-ended. 

"These are the first steps in a process that will continue for 20 years," he said. 

One of the biggest sticking points between proponents of the plan and those who question some of its findings is the plan's calculus on classroom capacity. 

The plan's most expensive option for solving the district's overcrowding calls for two new middle schools, a new elementary school and building expansions for the majority of the district's elementary schools.

DLR and O2 made those recommendations after calculating how much space the district would need to educate all of its students comfortably, create permanent rooms for art, music and other programs, bolster library space and expand the size of gymnasiums. 

Parents watching the process have wondered if the plan does too much. They worry that in 10 years the district will see a drop in student enrollment — something to which Cropper's demographic study points — and be left with extra classrooms and a handful of empty schools.

Some trustees have reservations, too. Connie Wardell, at a board meeting last month, said she wouldn't support implementing any part of the master facilities plan, calling it "fiscally unsustainable." 

The most ambitious version of the master facilities plan has a $158 million price tag.

Trustee Kathy Aragon has advocated that the board worry about the needs currently faced by the district and put off talk of building new schools until later.

They're legitimate concerns, Bouck said, and they highlight the need for the board to work in unison and come to a unanimous decision about how it will move forward. 

Otherwise, he said, it will be that much more difficult to gain the support of the community, something needed if the district is going to pass any kind of bond or levy with voters.

"What we're hearing loud and clear (at the numerous community meetings the district has held) is that trust in the district has been building back up," said Lew Anderson, SD2's facilities director. 

District leaders are eager to keep that community trust growing, so there's support when it's time to act on the master facilities plan.

"We need to deliver on our promise," Anderson said. 

For that reason, Bouck is hopeful the community will be at Monday's meeting. Parents and trustees will have the chance to ask their questions of the DLR, O2 and Cropper representatives, he said. 

With all the information laid out on the table, he's hopeful trustees then will be able to come up with a viable plan to move forward on facilities.

Pressure to do something is increasing. Short-term demographic forecasts show the elementary school district enrollment increasing each year for the next six years.

Already the district has 90 classrooms with a student/teacher ratio higher than what the state allows.

In May, the district will put a mill levy on the ballot, the money from which will go exclusively to hire new teachers if it passes.

The master facilities plan will be used to figure out how to create the room the new teachers would need to have space to hold class. 

"It's a planning tool," Bouck said. 

It can be adjusted as the district's needs change in the future, he said. 

As such, Trustee Greta Besch Moen hopes future iterations of the board will put the plan to use, as well. 

"I'm hoping this plan serves as a benchmark to future boards," she said. 

 

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