We’re in trouble. Our school district teeters on the verge of insolvency. We continue the long-standing habit of cutting in shortsighted snippets, employing unsuccessful solutions: budgeting by attrition, school closures, creating cluster schools. Instead, we must address the unsustainable trend of expenditures exceeding revenues.
The entire community must come together and face the largest deficit in the history of the district. We need effective and fair solutions. Mary Jo Fox again offered up what hasn’t worked in a Billings Gazette news story on Oct 29.
To suggest our district cannot afford anything less than consolidated schools not only lacks supporting data, it fails to calculate the myriad of long-term costs associated with such closures. Children further from their schools, neighborhood degradation, home devaluation, increased transportation costs, increased traffic congestion, and negative impacts on health, safety and the environment are all problems, not solutions. The referenced (but failed) three-page consolidation plan — initially touted as a “neighborhood” school plan — suggests building a school, followed by school closures in our poorest neighborhoods.
We’ve already closed, consolidated and enlarged. Remember? North Park, Taft, Garfield and Rimrock — gone. The heart of our city has been gutted of its schools. Any proposal for further school consolidation is blindingly counter to concerted community efforts to revitalize city center and downtown, while developing more affordable workforce housing.
Orchard was renovated and enlarged with the promise to become the school of the future, housing not only education but also community services, enhancing student learning at Garfield and Orchard. Instead, it is housing more students than most other elementary schools, 85 percent of its student population qualifying for free or reduced lunch. We have no reliable research supporting large schools in impoverished neighborhoods.
Dr. Craig Howley, national education policy researcher who has studied school size and education in Montana, states: “Larger systems develop these notions that uniformity is fairness ... so that all elementary schools have to be a certain size (e.g., 400-450). There is never any scientific logic for these decisions and no data has said or could say that 400-450 is best for all kids or all neighborhoods, actual education doesn’t work that way.” Dr. Howley concludes “smaller schools should be created and maintained in more economically deprived communities.”
Advancing a plan of a standard 400-450 student schools is not designed to focus on students and learning. Instead, this plan beckons higher dropout rates and creates added layers of challenge in our most economically strained neighborhoods. We’re teaching kids, not building widgets.
The most recent bump in enrollment throughout the district demands we finally address the long overdue district wide student re-boundary. With overall student enrollment remaining relatively flat (18,000 in 1970 and nearly 16,000 today), understanding both community and school demographics is essential. Student density, affordability of family housing, infrastructure, proximity to public transportation and land use patterns are all critical pieces in planning well for the future of not only our schools, but the entire community.
District decisions directly affect students, community, neighborhoods, revitalization efforts, transportation plans, traffic congestion, health, safety and in the end, your pocketbook. This community wants meaningful input that leads to data-driven decisions, which impact our schools and neighborhoods. All facts must be offered, considered, debated and understood. Only then should we ask our voters to make multimillion dollar decisions.
It’s time to examine long-term implications while partnering with our community. Informed decisions must be made using today’s tools and expertise. Billings can lead the way. Let’s cast a wider net and capture our entire community in helping us pave the way to better education and a better community.