Time is the most rapidly diminishing resource for Billings Public Schools. A $4.5 million deficit was projected for 2012 two years ago. It’s still there, like an iceberg looming dead ahead of the Titanic, while the board stands at the rail watching the approaching doom. Rather than fixing the gaping hole in the hull of our public school ship, the board has chosen instead to inventory and add new deck chairs, filling them with numerous assistant captains and consultants.
The school board spruced up several buildings, commissioned studies, hired consultants and more administrators for the central office and made trivial cuts that amount to a spit in the ocean. When is the district going to stop procrastinating and begin making tough decisions? Cuts of $4.5 million to balance the budget can only come from a significant reduction in staff, salaries/benefits, and/or facility consolidation to reduce operation costs and overhead. Almost a decade ago, schools were closed because the district waited too long to make constructive choices. When the clock ran out, schools were closed for quick savings. Will history repeat itself?
Former Superintendent Keith Beeman and former Board Chairwoman Barbara Bryan neglected to negotiate new contracts with any unions or even finalize a budget this year. It’s sailing without a rudder or map. The captain and first mate walked the plank. Ninety percent of the budget (personnel) was left as-is. School District 2 has entered a Bermuda Triangle of its own making, facing the possibility of closures and sister/cluster schools that a community survey already indicated is anathema.
To preserve neighborhood schools and smaller class sizes, SD2 must first accept that it cannot afford to maintain the facilities as they exist today. Renovation/building/expansion of at least three schools to hold more children, approximately 450-500 students, (that’s about one additional section per grade level) would restore the neighborhood school concept for everyone. Building, renovating and expanding to allow combining a few of our smallest elementary schools would allow SD2 to combine overhead expenses, eliminate some deferred maintenance, heating and administrative salaries that would otherwise be obligated by statute for each building, including a principal, custodian, counselor and librarian.
School District 2 owes nothing on its buildings. It has $305 million in unused bonding authority. Its credit is good. There’s no better time to build. An excerpt from the $100,000 Davis Demographics study that Beeman and Bryan expunged from the January 2011 draft said, “The next new elementary school for the District may in fact need to be located within Arrowhead’s area or not too far from it. The current and future impact on Arrowhead ES (elementary school) needs to be of high concern to the District. Depending upon the capacity of Arrowhead ES, in the very near future the District will need to address the issue of at least readjusting the attendance boundaries to more evenly distribute its resident population... Assuming that the District would keep their future elementary sites at the 450-500 level, then at least one, maybe two more elementary sites could be located within Arrowhead’s current boundary. One of these two new sites might be needed over the next 10 years.”
The district should move forward quickly to build/expand/renovate and consolidate at least three elementary schools to give Billings savings in overhead costs, plus flexibility to draw new boundaries and restore neighborhood schools for everyone. Nomadic, reassigned students could return to schools nearer their homes after years of senseless meandering. Space would be freed up in schools they currently populate. The $4.5 million hole could be filled and the ship could sail on, following a positive, intentional course.