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Laurel school officials are proposing a 20-year plan to deal with enrollment growth that was well received by about 25 attendees at a community meeting Monday night. 

The price tag for the bond — "why everyone's really here," Laurel superintendent Linda Filpula joked — was another matter. 

The Nov. 7 mail ballot is split into an elementary and high school question — $37.6 million for grades K-8 and $14.9 million for grades 9-12. Combined, the bond would cost about $125 per year on a $100,000 home. 

It features an overhaul of career and technical education facilities, a new elementary school and the jettisoning of the district's current administration building, all designed to help deal with enrollment growth that has exceeded its projected growth. 

Laurel residents largely thanked members of a planning committee that designed the bond project, but raised concerns about it's financial feasibility. Issues ranged from tax increases on properties whose assessed value has recently risen, to the potential of future general fund levy increases for year-to-year operating expenses, to concerns about overall state revenues.

One person cited lingering displeasure at a high school decision were trustees didn't give a "real reason" — a clear reference to the without-cause non-renewal of then high school principal Ed Norman in March, which was met with widespread community opposition.

No one disputed the growth Laurel has experienced, which is likely to continue. 

"We have been overcrowded in this district for years," Filpula said, also citing the potential of large middle school classes moving into the high school in the coming years. "We really don't have the space for those kids."

Laurel trustees and school officials held months of public meetings with architects and school planners, identifying priorities and winnowing down building proposals that would meet goals. 

Beefing up career and technical education was a top priority. The current high school doesn't have much physical room to expand; it's hemmed in by athletic and parking facilities. 

South Elementary School would be converted into a career and technical education center, similar to Billings' Career Center. The school has green space officials hope could be used for an agricultural program. 

A new elementary school for grades 3-5 would help ease pressure on the crowded middle school, removing fifth-graders. Laurel has an option to purchase about 30 acres of land just off East Main Street on Eleanor Roosevelt Road for the new school. 

Kindergartners who attended South Elementary would move to West Elementary. Renovations would add classrooms and a gym to accommodate grades K-3. At the high school, a second gym would be added and interior remodels would increase classroom space. 

Graff Elementary School, currently home to grades 3-4, would be repurposed as an administrative building. The current administrative building at 410 Colorado Avenue would be sold. The plans also address dozens of deferred maintenance projects. 

"It really is a long term plan," Filpula said. 

A community group, which includes several members of the committee that designed the plan, is advocating for the bond's passage. Tax increases in Eastern Montana often face an uphill battle, but some major projects have been successful in recent years. 

Billings Public Schools opened the second new middle school built as part of a $122 million bond passed in 2013. Custer schools passed a $3 million bond in May.

Laurel offered elementary and high school general fund mill levies in May. Both failed resoundingly, and few school levies passed in the region. 

Laurel's financial position did improve with the passage of a bill that makes paying back tax protests easier for schools. The CHS refinery, which makes up more than 50 percent of Laurel's K-8 tax base, has protested recent tax bills, but Laurel has had to access the protested tax money to pay for day-to-day operations. 



Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.