Gazette opinion: SD2 envisions spending too much on consultants

2011-08-04T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: SD2 envisions spending too much on consultants The Billings Gazette
August 04, 2011 12:00 am

At a recent school board committee meeting, School District 2 administration provided information to trustees on “estimated total facilities planning costs.” Not including any actual construction costs for actual school upgrades, the estimate totals $670,000 to $815,000 for three contracts — plus another $120,000 to license use of an out-of-state consultant’s assessments for each of Billings’ 30 schools.

Where would trustees get $1 million to spend on this planning and visioning process?

Tap building reserves?

Trustees were informed that they could tap the elementary building fund and building reserve, which now total $2.39 million.

Additionally, they could take money out of the high school building fund and building reserve, which now hold a total of $700,000.

Trustees are looking at a project that has been estimated to cost a third of all the building money on hand in this district. This is a plan for making a plan to get voter approval for school building improvements.

Last year, Billings voters approved a $12 million bond issue for school maintenance, not because it was the result of an international consultant’s $1 million study, but because a compelling case was made for investing in safer, more comfortable, more durable school buildings. Roofs, fire alarms, heating/ventilation and energy efficient windows accounted for most of these projects.

The district has maintained a list of such deferred maintenance projects and updated it over the years and recently had more than $120 million in projects lacking funding.

Four years ago, the state of Montana evaluated all school buildings for maintenance needs at the direction of the Legislature, which didn’t provide substantial money for addressing identified needs. But Billings Public Schools amassed information on its facilities. About the same time, the district looked at potential major remodels of two of its oldest schools, Broadwater and McKinley, with the help of neighborhood task forces. A third task force evaluated the possibility of building a new West End elementary school. None of those plans were carried out. Lack of money to operate an additional school would have meant closing an existing school.

As previously reported by The Gazette, the current board isn’t planning on building new schools.

Trustees are right to work toward improvements in school buildings. Outside contractors can provide valuable advice. However, the pricey advice now envisioned by SD2 administration is too costly at time when our schools are so strapped for cash that the superintendent has reduced high school teaching staff and proposed freezing all salaries in the upcoming year.

Furthermore, one of the selling points for the $12 million school bond issue approved in September 2010, was that most of the work would be done by local or regional businesses. The schools would get better facilities while putting local people to work, keeping our tax money in our community.

The visioning contract, as described so far, would most likely ship more than $1 million in tax dollars out of our community. Our buildings would be in no better shape for it — until Billings voters approved taxing ourselves millions more.

Last month at a meeting with The Gazette editorial board, Superintendent Keith Beeman said that additional consultant contracts related to the visioning process and redrawing of school attendance areas would cost an estimated $250,000 to $500,000 - in addition to the $90,000 already spent for the visioning workshop in September (see box at left) and the Davis Demographics study delivered earlier this year.

Use local expertise

Last week, trustees attending a board committee meeting were told that the additional contracts plus “non-contract costs” of surveys, travel and printing, could cost over $1 million — if the board authorizes them.

In tight financial times, the best vision for Billings Public Schools is saving money. Limited building funds should be reserved for actual building improvements or repairs.

We call on trustees to set priorities for deferred maintenance using local expertise and to make any needed school attendance area adjustments with staff and public input. Don’t spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on distant consultants.

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