Much of what I have achieved in my life can be credited directly to the education that I received in Billings. I graduated from Billings High School, now Billings Senior High. My first “campaign” was to seek approval of a mill levy that was necessary to avoid potential loss of accreditation of the high school. Billings has always been cautious with taxes, and residents are conservative with their finances. We formed a group of students and went door to door explaining the levy was necessary for our education. We were successful; the levy passed. Now, over 50 years later, school financing is far more complex, dependent on many sources, and all those sources come with multiple strings attached.
Ten years ago, I began seriously studying methods of school finance, especially the sources from the Legislature. During those years, we have had hired superintendents, hired especially to “help us in Helena.” The result is net zero. As an urban school district, we are seriously underfunded by the state because of the way these funds are allocated. We have 15,500 students; the next-largest school district has approximately 4,500 students. I do not believe that we can ever educate a rural part-time Legislature of our needs. We are going to have to solve our problems here in Billings, Yellowstone County and School District 2.
We also have difficulty with our current approach to passing mill levies. What worked when 75 percent of households had children will not work when only 19 percent of households include children. Further, Billings has never passed mill levies without a solid and fully accepted plan.
In my research, I find many districts that have the same characteristics as ours. I find there are creative ways used by other urban school districts that are funding schools successfully. Some ways might work here, some will not. But we do need to start thinking outside the box of Legislature and local mill levies.
To find new funding sources, this community needs a long-range definitive school plan that includes facilities, teachers, kids, and community needs. Once we know where we want to go, we can find the means to get there.
We need to embrace the fact that we are an urban school district in an urban community in a rural state. We are able to provide group instruction at a variety of learning levels and in a variety of learning styles. We have available talented people from a broad variety of local businesses, two universities, two medical complexes, two community theater organizations, an art museum, Western Heritage Center and even an opera company. And we have great teachers! Can we put in place a process that will generate the synergism that should be occurring between these resources and School District 2?
I believe we can and I want to be part of the process that creates a school district for this century. I want today’s kids to have the same educational advantages that I had. That is why I am running for the school board. I ask for your vote and your support.
Connie Wardell is a candidate for Billings school trustee in District 7, which is a West End area between Rimrock Road and King Avenue west of 32nd Street West. This seat is held by board Chairman Malcolm Goodrich, who isn’t seeking re-election. Other candidates for District 7 are Craig Hash and LaVonna Robinson.