When all nine Billings Public Schools trustees talked Thursday night about the district’s comprehensive master planning process, civility and sincerity reigned.
Members have frequently been at odds and some meetings have been contentious. But on that night on this big issue – providing adequate, safe, functional facilities for all our 16,000 Billings students -- trustees offered thoughtful, intelligent comments.
Trustee Allen Halter talked about his school visits: “Teachers and principals show us all the great things going on. They aren’t whining or complaining about the buildings. It’s our job to present what’s going on. We need to address all of the buildings and be fair to all of the kids.”
The 30 or so other community members attending also are commended. There was no ranting or raving. Parents and grandparents asked good questions and offered valuable insight that indicated they have been scrutinizing the district’s planning process.
It’s encouraging to see all trustees engaged in this planning and other well-informed citizens speaking up. However, there are many decisions ahead for the trustees and the community. There will undoubtedly be strong disagreements. Hard decisions must be made and clear communication will be paramount.
One of the first decision points will be whether to retain the current K-6 elementary configuration or move to K-5 elementaries and 6-8 middle schools. So far, district officials and the majority of people attending five community meetings are leaning toward the K-5 model.
There are sound educational and financial efficiency reasons for moving sixth-graders to middle schools, as most U.S. school districts already have done. Now is the time for concerned citizens to find out more about the three-grade middle school model, which is getting a limited trial this year at Lewis and Clark and Will James middle schools. Each of those schools has about 100 sixth-graders whose assigned elementary schools didn’t have enough space for them.
As part of the master planning process, O2 Architects of Billings and DLR, a national consulting firm, analyzed each SD2 building and graded them on site, structural systems, exterior envelope, interior, HVAC, plumbing, electrical, fire/life safety, technology, egress, ADA/code and energy consumption. The results reveal considerable needs and disparities between facilities. Orchard Elementary, the site of a major new addition several years ago scored highest at 91.8 percent. But only Orchard, Skyview and Senior scored above 80 percent. Two-thirds of Billings public school facilities scored below 70 percent with Miles Avenue ranking last at 50 percent.
These grades aren’t acceptable. If our school buildings were students, we would expect consistently higher grades. The inequity across the district also is concerning. All Billings students deserve the same high-quality learning environment.
We encourage parents, grandparents and other community members to learn more. Superindent Terry Bouck said five community meetings will be scheduled in January, and dozens more will be held before any building or expansion could be approved. Find out for yourself what your school leaders are talking about.