Two dozen kids’ coats hang neatly in the tiny closet of Shelly Dunbar’s classroom. But there’s no room to hang backpacks, so the packs are stacked on the floor.
Like the other four kindergarten classes at Meadowlark Elementary, Dunbar’s is over the state accreditation maximum size of 20. Meadowlark kindergarten classes range in size from 22 to 24. Children from the Burlington Elementary attendance area are bused to Meadowlark for kindergarten because Burlington doesn’t have any space for kindergartners; grades 1-6 occupy all its classrooms.
Meadowlark has enough kindergartners to fill a sixth class, but Billings Public Schools doesn’t have the money to hire another teacher.
The number of oversize classrooms has mushroomed in Billings public elementary schools. This fall, 93 K-6 classrooms were over size — nearly a quarter of all classrooms.
Six years ago, Billings had 30 oversize K-6 classes. That number has grown because student enrollment has grown faster than district funding. Our schools are in crisis; our youngest students are at greatest risk of missing out on the individualized instruction they need to succeed.
Rare Page 1 editorial
Any other Sunday, readers would find The Gazette opinion on the next-to-last page of the local news section. For the first time any of our staff members can remember, our editorial is on Page 1. Today we call on the community to respond to the urgent needs of our students by taking the first steps in reversing the gradual decline of our schools.
The $1 million general fund levy proposal on the May 7 ballot will be used to hire more teachers for the school year that starts in August. Superintendent Terry Bouck projects that the district will be able to hire up to 18 additional teachers. With that staff increase, Bouck estimates there will still be 54 oversize classes next year. Without the levy and additional teachers it would fund, he estimates there would be 109 oversize classes next year.
Why isn’t the district asking voters for enough money to hire enough teachers to eliminate overcrowding?
Because state law limits how much each school district can spend. The state school funding formula allows the Billings elementary district to request a maximum increase of $1 million this year from voters.
While voters are being asked to help, Billings Public Schools and schools statewide are looking to the Legislature to boost support for education. Senate Bill 175, which will come before a House committee Monday, includes many changes. Two are especially important for Billings. The first would provide funding for increased student enrollment the same year the students enroll. The second would base a funding component called “basic entitlement” on the number of students in a school district.
Last fall, Billings’ 22 public elementary schools welcomed an additional 300 students. But the district received no additional money to educate those students.
To overcome the oversize class problem completely, Billings will need both the general fund levy and the boost in state support.
Billings has a short-term strategic plan for putting more teachers where they are needed: Some school libraries will be downsized to create additional classroom space. At Bitterroot Elementary, the principal’s office will become a small classroom for special needs. The Big Sky Elementary staff lounge will be converted into a small classroom. More sixth-graders may be moved to middle school where teachers would start working from carts and sharing the same classroom. In schools that don’t have any more space for classrooms, Billings will ask the state to grant an accreditation variance that will allow another teacher to work with teachers in oversize classes.
“My teachers would jump on that,” said Meadowlark Principal Stacy Lemelin. “They would work as a team. The kids would get that small group instruction.”
Last fall, Big Sky Elementary had an unexpected influx of kindergartners — so many that each of its three kindergarten classrooms had 28 students — eight more than the accreditation max of 20.
At Big Sky, the gym is the P.E. classroom and the cafeteria. Extended studies and band classes meet on the stage end of the gym. Art and vocal music teachers are on carts and conduct lessons in the regular classrooms.
“If they came to me and said here’s another teacher, I wouldn’t have a place to put him,” Principal Lee Kvilhaug said last week. “I don’t have space.”
Billings has failed to meet some aspects of state accreditation standards since 1995. This year, 20 of our 22 elementary schools have oversize classrooms. The problem is citywide.
“We now have a strategic plan for dealing with our accreditation issues,” Bouck said during a recent visit with The Gazette editorial board. It was one of about 90 presentations that he plans to make to community members before the May 7 election. New to Billings this year, Bouck already has demonstrated strong communication skills. He is the dynamic leader our schools need.
The first step in the strategic plan is passing the local general fund levy. Legislative support is the second piece. Those two elements are projected to provide enough money for staff so that Billings could consider building more K-8 classrooms to serve its burgeoning student body. The first phase of the recently adopted master facilities plan for Billings Public Schools calls for building two middle schools, moving all sixth-graders to middle school and upgrading the K-5 schools.
Two levy issues will be on the Billings May 7 ballot — the $1 million teacher levy and a $1.2 million technology levy.
Tech tools for students
Like the general fund levy, the tech levy won’t meet all the students’ classroom technology needs in one year. Rather, it will be the first important step.
Kvilhaug described a day in the life of Big Sky Elementary’s two computer labs, which are shared among 20 regular classrooms.
First a note about the sponsors: Big Sky has computer labs because its PTA raised the money and bought them. Ask Billings elementary principals about their computer labs. If they have any, it’s because parents, local businesses or the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools donated them. The district has no money to purchase technology for K-8 schools.
“We’ve got a lot of activity,” Kvilhaug said of the two computer labs. “They get turned on in the morning and they go all day.”
Later this month, all Billings elementary schools will be giving students in grades 3-6 the NWEA tests that measure student growth in reading, language and math. The tests help teachers make instructional decisions, such as setting up small learning groups for kids who struggle in math or excel in reading. It takes two full weeks to test every classroom, moving two computer labs from room to room. And that’s if the wireless network is working, which it often isn’t at Big Sky.
“Our wireless connection is so overloaded, it cannot handle the technology,” Kvilhaug said.
Seventy-five percent of the computers in Billings public elementary and middle schools are at least 5 years old. How many Billings workers can say the same about the age of computers in their workplace?
Technology demand will increase significantly as the state implements Common Core standards to raise academic achievement in reading and math. Starting year after next, intermediate elementary students will have to take Common Core tests on computers — and they will have to provide some answers in full sentences or paragraphs.
“We have to teach our kids to type paragraphs,” Lemelin said. “We need to have computers to teach our kids to type.”
The basic technology that the levy would provide includes wireless networks for all 22 elementary and four middle schools. It includes interactive equipment for each teacher and classroom, including an interactive white board, projector and a document camera that allows the teacher to project any photo, article, graph or other image onto the white board.
Part of the proposed K-8 tech levy also would be devoted to staff training because teachers must learn how to use the tech tools.
The proposed technology levy isn’t going to buy an iPad or laptop for every kid, said Karen Palmer, the district’s technology director. The goal would be to have a computer or iPad lab for every grade level in every elementary school and for every department in every middle school. The levy revenue would allow the district to reach that goal within a few years. Then it would be time to start replacing technology as it wears out.
The technology levy revenues would be distributed to each elementary and middle school based on student enrollment. That’s how the high school tech money is allocated.
Without the tech levy, 11,000 Billings elementary and middle school students will fall further behind all other Montana AA districts that already have elementary tech levies and further behind neighboring small districts that have computers for all their students.
Without the general fund levy, classroom crowding will worsen and Billings will be at greater risk of losing accreditation.
If both the teacher and technology levies pass, the owner of a home worth about $200,000 would pay a total of $37 in additional annual taxes. That’s an increase of just more than $3 a month for uncrowding classrooms and adding basic technology.
We ask all voters to consider how public education has benefited them. Good schools make Billings a more attractive place to live, a more appealing location for new and expanded businesses. Good schools boost property values. Good K-12 schools prepare students to be our future doctors, nurses, physical therapists, mechanics, chefs, lawyers and every other professional we will depend on in old age. We’d better take good care of the kids now so they can take good care of us later.
Without the general fund levy, the elementary classroom crowding will worsen and the district’s accreditation will be in further jeopardy.
Without the tech levy, 11,000 Billings elementary and middle school students will continue to fall further behind other Montana school districts that already have tech levies and computers for all their students.
We ask Gazette readers to vote for both levies when they receive mail ballots later this month.