Gazette opinion: Billings needs plan now for growing student body

2012-06-03T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: Billings needs plan now for growing student body The Billings Gazette
June 03, 2012 12:10 am

The overcrowding in Billings elementary schools is no longer limited to the fast-growing West End. Students from Arrowhead, McKinley, Washington, Newman and Burlington are scheduled to be bused next year because their assigned schools don’t have room for all K-6 students.

Even with busing, the school district projects it will have between 108 and 120 K-2 classrooms over the state accreditation limit next fall.

Last fall, Billings Public Schools had 94 elementary classrooms oversized, mostly K-2 classes. Eighteen of 22 elementary schools had oversized kindergarten classes.

The Montana Board of Public Education has set a quality standard of not more than 20 students in kindergarten, first and second-grade classes. The standard reflects the tremendous importance of primary grades when the foundational reading and math skills must be learned so students can progress in other academic subjects.

However, Billings students are caught between three factors that threaten the quality of their education:

  • A state funding formula that automatically provides less money per student for its largest district.
  • A local propensity to vote down school levies.
  • Division on the school board about how to resolve classroom crowding. Trustees even have disagreed about whether there is a crowding/space problem.

That last problem must be resolved first. SD2 now is under intensive scrutiny from the state board for failing to meet accreditation standards for several years. The state has the authority to revoke district accreditation if satisfactory improvement isn’t made soon. And the state wants to see a plan of correction next month.

Meanwhile, the Billings school board continues to discuss a long-range master plan and is partnering with the city to use an EPA grant to plan.

Planning is good. But the kids and the accreditation standards can’t wait any longer. Action is required this summer.

The district would need to hire 23 more elementary teachers and add 23 classrooms to eliminate projected overcrowding this August.

One option mentioned by interim Superintendent Jack Copps would be reopening Rimrock School, which has 12 classrooms. But it would first need repairs, including a new heating system, at a cost estimated at $1 million.

Furthermore, there is no money in the K-8 operating budget for hiring more teachers or outfitting more classrooms.

For next year, the only viable solution is hiring classroom aides for oversized primary classes. Copps estimated that $900,000 would be the cost of adding 64 aides to help out in all oversized classes.

Trustees need to see a plan from administration this summer for using reserves or any other available resource to hire as many of the 64 aides as possible.

Before the Legislature convenes in January, every Yellowstone County lawmaker needs to know how the state formula provides less per student to Billings kids than to children in any other elementary district.

By next spring, when the district can again seek voter support for an operating levy — and a building levy — the community needs to have a clear proposal for adding enough teachers and classrooms to meet state standards. That proposal should be part of a plan for meeting Billings public education facility needs for many years into the future.

Terry Bouck, who takes on the Billings superintendent job in July, led his Washington state district through a community process of school master planning. Bouck told The Gazette that process took 18 months. Billings doesn’t have 18 months to resolve its urgent overcrowding and understaffing. A short-term remedy must be created, even as the district works with the community on a long-term plan.

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