Gazette opinion: Let’s work to fix up Billings school facilities

2010-06-15T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Let’s work to fix up Billings school facilities The Billings Gazette
June 15, 2010 12:00 am

Billings Public Schools have a long list of deferred maintenance needs for the 30 buildings that house the district’s 15,600 K-12 students. This isn’t news. Billings citizens have heard about school building needs for many years, even as school operating levies were defeated. The district provided an itemized list running several pages with estimated costs to Billings area lawmakers before the 2009 Legislature.

Altogether, the Billings Public Schools have an estimated $120 million in deferred maintenance. This list needs to be whittled down for the sake of both our children and local taxpayers. These projects aren’t frivolous: We are talking about replacing old heating systems that are at risk of failing; replacing antiquated plumbing, worn-out roofs and windows that drain heat out of schools; repairing sidewalks and pavement; upgrading electrical and ventilation systems; and complying with handicap accessibility requirements. All of the projects involve safety, meeting life safety/building codes, preventing foreseeable disaster, enhancement of educational opportunities, energy conservation or a combination of these benefits.

Billings applications fail

Thus, it was disappointing to learn that the state Department of Commerce rejected the half-dozen applications that Billings Public Schools made in the first round of Quality Schools grants established by the 2009 Legislature. Five of the proposals would have improved energy efficiency and the comfort of students and staff in our schools; the sixth application was to replace a leaky section of the Castle Rock Middle School (730 students) roof that was installed when the school was built in 1979.

Superintendent Jack Copps raised valid concerns about Billings schools being shut out of these grants. It is concerning that Commerce Department officials, by their own admission, gave five of the Billings applications a zero score because the district didn’t submit copies of its 2009 energy audit, a document that was referenced in the applications and that was previously submitted to the department. Moreover, the Commerce Department asked other districts for additional information after receiving their grant applications, yet didn’t notify Billings Public Schools that its applications would fail without new copies of the energy audit.

The needs here are tremendous. A lot of good would come from fixing up our local schools.

School facility needs throughout Montana are great, too. According to a letter from Kelly Casillas, an administrator in the Department of Commerce in Helena, 135 applications requesting more than $75 million in grant money were received. The department selected 33 applications to receive a total of $10.6 million in grant money.

A $2.5 million statewide school facility condition inventory conducted at the direction of the December 2005 special legislative session and Gov. Brian Schweitzer identified $360 million in deferred maintenance in Montana public schools. The inventory was presented to the 2009 Legislature, which allocated only $10 million in state funds this biennium to address the $360 million problem.

Spending to save money

At a board meeting last week, Billings trustees, acting on the recommendation of their advisory committees, decided to consider taking a bond issue to voters, an issue that would allow the district to take advantage of zero-interest borrowing through a provision of the federal stimulus law. The community needs more information on this opportunity for funding school improvements before making a decision. However, trustees are wise to explore all reasonable options.

Earlier in this column, it was stated that school improvements benefit taxpayers. Here’s one compelling example: Replacing failing, obsolete temperature control systems at Lincoln Center (home to the Senior Freshman Academy), Senior High (1,740 students), West High (1,950 students), Big Sky Elementary (420 students), Eagle Cliffs Elementary (400 students) and Skyview High (1,500 students) would save the district an estimated $139,000 annually in gas and electrical expenses, according to models derived from an energy audit. The cost of replacing control systems at the six facilities totals $763,000. The payback in energy savings is 5.48 years. That proposal was one of the losers in the state grant competition. The district today doesn’t have the cash to do the work.

Let’s keep those numbers in mind as school leaders prepare applications for the next round of state grants and trustees lead a community discussion of the possibility of a bond issue in a tough economy. Let this column serve as a strong message of support for efforts to repair and improve the facilities that serve our 15,600 Billings schoolchildren.

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