A new Lockwood High School “sells itself” to voters, supporters say. It could help that the first vote — an issue on the Nov. 7 ballot — doesn’t come with a price tag.

The Lockwood Community Education Committee held a kick-off event at ACE Hardware in Lockwood on Saturday, distributing yard signs and giving their pitch for why Lockwood's K-8 school district should expand to include high school. Lockwood students attend high school in School District 2.

A smaller-school atmosphere is a big selling point for new district supporters, compared to Billings' three high schools with 1,500 students or more.

“I think School District 2 does a good job, but you look at what they manage … it’s just a different environment,” said Chad Hansen, who heads the education committee. “They have to treat all 17,000 kids equal. (Lockwood kids) are our only priority.”

Elementary-only school districts in Montana weren’t allowed to create a high school until a new law passed this spring, letting elementary districts with more than 1,000 students vote to break away from the high school district their students funnel into.

The law requires two votes; the first is merely conceptual, asking voters to approve the creation of a new high school district without getting into the costs. That’s what’s on the mail ballot in November.

The second vote must be held within two years of the first vote, and it needs to have a price tag for the bond required to build a new high school and levies required to operate it. If the first vote fails, or the second doesn’t pass within two years, the district has to wait for a new five-year window for another push.

School District 2 opposed the bill, in part because Billings voters didn't get a vote on the new district. The departure of Lockwood students would likely create a small increase in year-to-year school taxes in Billings.

The prospect of a split could complicate district planning. Billings aims to update a facilities master plan and demographic study and enrollment forecast this school year, evaluating how best to use staff and buildings. SD2 Superintendent Terry Bouck previously said that the upcoming election hasn’t affected current district planning, but that could change.

“It depends on whether it passes or not,” he said.

If the vote passes on Nov. 7, supporters aim to vote well within the two year window. The school district needs to complete architectural and financial work to project costs for the new district. It could pass an automatic transitional levy to pay for the work, but Lockwood plans to pay out of already existing school funds, Hansen said.

“If it passes, we can’t just say, ‘oh, great, sit back and wait,’” he said. “We need to push the momentum.”

Hanson tends to say “when” more than “if” talking about the November vote. Supporters have already been going door-to-door in Lockwood and distributing yard signs. In addition to educational benefits, he believes the school could give the area an economic boost, and reduced transportation of students would address complaints that were inflamed by a recent redrawing of SD2 boundaries, which shifted most Lockwood students to Skyview High school. Lockwood students previously picked Skyview or Senior High. Most attended Senior.

A significant body of research supports the idea that small schools in tight-knit communities are good for students. But there are still trade-offs. It’s generally more expensive to run smaller schools in Montana, and adding diverse courses and activities is often more expensive in a smaller school. 

Projections from the Gazette in 2016 show that a new high school would likely increase year-to-year school taxes in Lockwood as compared to SD2, depending on locally voted levies. Those projections estimated that building costs for a new school could be around $40 million — a figure based on local and national school construction costs and estimates from Lockwood Superintendent Tobin Novasio — which would cost taxpayers about $110 per year on a $100,000 home.

Opponents of lifting the ban on new high school districts also fear that the law could be a foot in the door for wide-scale district expansion, which could have ramifications for Montana’s state school funding system.

School district splits have become a national issue recently, especially in southern states where school district had been required to racially integrate schools by court orders. Several new districts are significantly more wealthy and more white than existing districts, raising concerns about educational equity. A Lockwood split wouldn't fall into that category; more Lockwood elementary students than Billings elementary students are considered "economically disadvantaged" by the state, and the districts have similar proportions of American Indian students, Montana's largest minority group.

But the Nov. 7 vote doesn’t get into financial details, and the pro-high school campaign isn’t going there either, for now. Yard signs implore voters, referencing Lockwood’s lion mascot, to “bring our pride home.”

“There’s a lot of pride in Lockwood,” Hansen said.

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.