Tonight the Billings school board will consider the recommendations gleaned from more than a year of careful planning and research. The time has come for trustees to endorse a sound solution to the overcrowding that has affected students in all of our 22 elementary schools.
Billings Public Schools has seen its enrollment increase by about 600 students over the past two years and projects an additional increase of more than 300 elementary students when classes start next month.
We’ve run out of space for our growing student body.
The consensus reached through numerous public meetings, informed with studies of demographics, educational research and reams of other information is that Billings should adopt the middle school model with grades six, seven and eight in middle schools and grades K-5 in elementary schools. This change would require building two new middle schools. Moving grade six out of the elementary schools would provide space for the growing numbers of students in K-5.
This change would affect our entire community. This is a decision that trustees Kathy Aragon, Lindy Graves, Allen Halter, Travis Kemp, Greta Besch Moen and Kevin Toohill must make with the best interests of the entire community in mind.
The recommendation to trustees is that two middle schools be constructed: one on property the district already owns at 56th Street West and Grand Avenue, and one in the Heights. The recommended Heights sites are privately owned tracts east of Main Street. The highest-ranked choice adjoins the Bitterroot Elementary property along Bench Boulevard. Superintendent Terry Bouck recommends that the district keep multiple Heights sites under consideration while negotiating possible purchase.
Citizen bond survey
Of course, nothing will be purchased or built unless voters approve. The district recently conducted a survey to find out what residents think of a $122 million bond issue that would be required to build two middle schools and do major renovation at Broadwater and McKinley.
Fifty-four percent of the 902 people who completed the survey said they are “certain or likely” to vote for such a bond issue. Only 44 percent said they are “certain or likely” to vote for a $160 million bond issue that would also build a new elementary school and make improvements at most other elementary schools. The survey results are subject to a 3.2 percent margin of error.
Presently, many Billings students are bused across town because our schools — all built more than 25 years ago — aren’t necessarily located where students live. The proposed middle school sites are in growing areas that are projected to keep growing. The new middle schools would reduce busing for many students.
The district also has looked at the costs of operating six middle schools with grades six, seven and eight compared with the costs of the present system. The proposed new middle school model would allow the district to serve students with fewer teachers, because sixth-graders would be in six schools instead of 22. That would give the district greater ability to put more teachers in primary grades where dozens of classrooms were overcrowded last year. With Montana’s school-funding formula, staffing efficiency is imperative in large school districts. Billings must use its teachers and support staff to the best advantage for students, which also includes increasing educational interventions for struggling and gifted students. This is the path we will be on if Billings embraces the middle school model.
Set election date
We call on our hardworking, unpaid trustees to step up Monday night and vote for the greater good.
Accept the site selection committee recommendations.
Vote to declare a bond election for Nov. 5, the date of city elections.