Kathy Aragon

KATHY ARAGON

LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff

In August, the Billings Public Schools superintendent notified the community through his newsletter that a Seattle architectural firm and A&E Architects Engineers will be collaborating on a facilities master plan.

I hope the new plan does not result in identifying sites for new construction or schools for closure. Our next facilities master plan needs to address long-term plans for maintenance and operations of our schools using a no-interest building reserve.

In 2012, when the last FMP identified the need for new space to address overcrowded classrooms at K-8, the school board was reassured by Superintendent Terry Bouck that there would be no closures and that the plan would be revisited before the second middle school was built to ensure that enrollment and other assumptions were met . Unfortunately, the second school was built despite the fact enrollment projections were not met.

Most importantly, the district never established an oversight committee linking finances to staffing, operations, and maintenance allowing transparency and oversight. The 2012 BPS FMP was not tied to an independent feasibility study, only a one-page internal document, created by then chief financial officer Leo Hudetz.

SD2 must now operate and maintain five middle schools with K-8 enrollment more than 600 students fewer than orgininal Cropper/McGibbon projections.

The enrollment “bubble” is now passing through the high schools that are in dire need of updates and repairs. All highs schools have historically housed far more students, but the buildings are overdue for updating and renovations. Fielding Nair, an internationally respected planning firm, visited BPS in 2011 and suggested low-cost improvements in existing spaces to increase capacity and allow existing schools to better handle enrollment bumps/dips. A no-interest building reserve could fund those improvements; a more realistic solution than building another new building which Billings cannot staff or maintain. Passing a bond would be a much more expensive long-term commitment adding millions in interest.

Major decisions regarding schools have been short-sighted. For instance the closing/reopening of Beartooth School, which cost more in transportation and closing/opening costs than had it remained opened. New school construction is surrounded by politics with far-reaching impacts including benefits to nearby development.

Some school funds, including transportation, are rarely factored into costs because they are permissive (non-voted) levies. This should not be the case because these funds are clearly still part of the cost. Permissive levies grew this year as the 2017 Legislature backfilled state education dollars by shifting costs back to the local taxpayers.

I will always be an advocate for public schools and support school levies which are capped by enrollment numbers, but I will not always support bonds, because of the highly political nature of school siting and the kids and families who usually lose out when schools close.

Our community would be best served by having all schools modernized and upgraded via the use of an interest-free building reserve levy. Many Montana communities keep building reserve levies in place to upkeep their schools. We, instead, let our schools get in poor shape, then use dilapidated school condition, showing pictures of old heating units, leaking ceilings, etc., to request a bond to build new schools and serve sprawl. In the future, we should demand a commitment to taking care of our existing schools before considering any plan that calls for building new.

Until BPS comes to terms with how to make the needed improvements in existing buildings and sustainably support staff and operations/maintenance, I will not support building more new schools. If BPS comes to understand the importance of taking care of what we have, then I will support their plan.

Kathy Aragon is a former Billings school trustee.

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