SD2 gears up for final push on construction bond

2013-09-15T00:15:00Z 2014-04-23T06:44:07Z SD2 gears up for final push on construction bondBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

As School District 2 officials see it, this might be their best shot.

For the first time in decades, SD2 has momentum on its side, the support of both facility and demographic experts, and increasing community goodwill.

This November may be the only chance the district has to secure from voters a massive $122 million bond that will build two new middle schools and repair, refurbish and remodel a number of aging elementary schools.

“We’re building on trust,” said Greta Besch Moen, a board trustee and chairwoman of the board’s planning and development committee.

For the last 15 months, the school district has been studying its facilities, meeting with neighbors and parents and trying to find a way to fit more students into shrinking spaces.

Dealing with budget crises during the last decade, SD2 shuttered several schools, reopening some and selling others.

Those decisions were the result of poor long-term planning by the district and the lack of a unifying facility master plan, past trustees have said.

During the same period of tight budgets, the district cut costs by replacing fewer teachers as they retired, reducing staff through attrition rather than layoffs.

The result, years later, is less classroom space and fewer teachers than the district had before.

When enrollment began to climb in 2010, SD2 found it had limited space for students and limited staff to teach them.

Classrooms in many schools quickly became overcrowded. Schools with additional space became catch basins for the overflowing classrooms across town, some taking entire kindergarten programs from other schools.

Adding to the problem are the school buildings themselves. SD2’s newest school is Skyview High, built in 1986. Its two oldest are Broadwater and McKinley elementary schools, built in the 1910s.

The board’s reluctance over the years to place building reserve levies on the ballot and the community’s reluctance to vote for them led to a deferred maintenance bill for SD2 facilities that topped out at $120 million in 2010.

“We are dealing with an issue that is at our feet, but it’s been building for a long time,” Moen said.

Nearly two years ago, the SD2 board began to move on creating a master facilities plan, something that would inventory all of SD2’s classroom space, evaluate the health of the buildings and give the district a uniform plan to care for its facilities moving into the future.

“That way, we’re making decisions based on fact,” Moen said.

Accreditation at risk

That work was hastened during summer 2012 when SD2 was called before the State Board of Public Education and censured, told its accreditation was at risk because of its high number of overcrowded elementary school classrooms.

The state mandated that SD2 find a way to reduce crowding in its classroom and it directed the district to continue on with its master facilities plan.

The plan was completed this spring and it gave the district a clear path forward, calling for the construction of new schools to handle SD2’s rising student population.

SD2 commissioned the plan from Billings-based O2 Architects and national design firm DLR Group. One of the studies attached to the plan shows that the elementary district is nearly 800 students over capacity.

In other words, the district is currently housing 800 more students than it has room for under state regulations.

“And that’s right now,” said Superintendent Terry Bouck.

In the next decade, SD2 is supposed to gain twice that, he said.

A demographic study included in the master facilities plan showed that enrollment will peak at 17,600 students by 2020. That’s up from the 16,000 students SD2 has now.

In the elementary schools, enrollment will peak at 9,472 in 2018 before dropping to 8,913 students in 2023.

Enrollment in the middle schools is expected to peak at 2,837 students in 2022. The high schools show continual growth through the end of 2023, when they’ll hit 5,722 students.

“The kids are coming,” said Lew Anderson, facilities director for SD2. “We have to have a place to put them.”

Which brings SD2 officials back to the bond.

Their hope is to build two new middle schools to join the four that already exist. The six schools would house all the district’s sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.

Making that move would pull sixth-graders from all the district’s elementary schools, creating more space there for the younger, growing student body.

Should the bond pass, construction of the two middle schools would likely start between 2015 and 2016, finishing up a year later, about the time elementary enrollment levels out, but in plenty of time for the growing middle school populations.

The true challenge for the cash-strapped district will be coming up with the money to fully run two new schools.

“I don’t think we’ve proven our ability to fund and staff two middle schools,” Trustee Kathy Aragon told trustees during a school board meeting last month.

Speaking on Friday, Aragon talked about the district’s past budget woes and the trouble it has every year of making ends meet. SD2 was forced to dip into its reserves the last three years to cover all its bills.

“We haven’t been able to afford our mortgage the last three years and now we want to build more house,” she said.

Looking forward

SD2 officials have put together a five-year plan to save $720,000 annually in order to run the schools when they open.

To do this, the district will recommend that each school cut its operational costs by 1 percent a year for those five years. District-wide, the plan calls for keeping expenditures flat.

The five-year financial plan also includes revenue the district hopes to get from the state and increases from two new mill levies over the next five years.

Planning on funds from the state and voters — two groups that have a history of being reluctant to offer up more education dollars — has some people nervous, including Aragon.

The district doesn’t have the best history of keeping expenditures flat, and relying on the Legislature and voters to make up the difference isn’t the most solid plan.

Aragon said she understands the needs of the district, that it’s growing and that it’s facilities are rapidly aging.

She just wants to make sure the district can afford to travel whatever path it chooses.

“I want us to take the time to ensure any move forward is sustainable,” she said.

Bouck has promised at various board meetings and community gatherings that he wouldn’t open schools the district couldn’t afford to run.

Moen reiterated that statement on Thursday.

“We won’t do things we can’t afford,” she said.

The board has asked that Bouck provide a monthly report on where savings are for running the new schools, beginning in November.

If those monthly reports show the district is having serious trouble saving enough money, they will adjust their plan, she said.

Should voters reject the bond on Nov. 5, SD2 leaders will go back to the drawing board.

“The first thing we would do is sit down and put together some type of survey” to find out what the community wants SD2 to do next, Bouck said.

“It’d be a whole new starting line, which is really devastating for the kids,” Moen said.

For Bouck, the issue is space. Schools are maxed out now, and without a way to create more space, he’s not sure what the district could do.

“We flat-out have run out of options when it comes to space,” he said.

In 2023, when enrollment begins to flatten, some have worried that the district will be left with more classroom space than it needs.

SD2 leaders are terribly concerned. Enrollment in the elementaries in 2023 is projected be 100 students higher than it is right now.

Anderson said he plans to shutter portable classrooms — SD2 has 20 of them — if they see a sharp decline in enrollment in the next decade.

As district leaders look to Nov 5, they feel confident about their plans and the information backing them.

“The thing I’m really proud of is we have been inclusive of anyone who’s wanted to be involved,” Bouck said.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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