Lockwood high school

Architectural renderings of a future Lockwood high school. 

Lockwood will get a head start on the operation of its new high school.

School trustees voted unanimously Monday night to open a freshman academy next school year, one year sooner than was originally planned when voters passed a $49.9 million bond for a new building and expansion from a K-8 to K-12 district.

It initially planned to open the high school to underclassmen in 2020, when the full school is slated to be finished, but in October the district began considering opening a freshman academy in an auxiliary building that would be finished in time for the 2019-2020 school year.

Those plans hit a speed bump when Billings, where Lockwood students currently attend high school, shot down an agreement that would have eased attendance for Lockwood freshmen who opted to attend Billings instead of the freshman academy. Those students could have been on the hook for a $1,400 tuition fee that Billings charges to out-of-district students.

However, Lockwood also approved an arrangement through which the district will pay tuition for freshmen attending Billings high schools next year if certain conditions are met.

“We don’t want to restrict any of those students,” said board vice-chairwoman Kat Pfau. “I think the board was very open to listening to what the majority of the parents wanted and what they felt was the best fit for their children.”

The freshman academy idea gained steam in Lockwood after a survey distributed by the district showed parents favor keeping their kids at Lockwood next year by about a 4-1 margin, with about 60 percent of parents returning the survey.

The district plans to use an auxiliary building originally planned to house career and technical education courses for the academy. The building would have about six classrooms and athletic facilities, including an auxiliary gym. After serving as a bridge for freshmen, it would transition to being used as part of a larger high school.

The state Office of Public Instruction informed the Board of Public Education in January that Lockwood started the accreditation process for a potential academy.

After spending months debating facilities, academics and athletics, and hearing from parents both in favor of the freshman academy and against, trustees planned to vote on the academy in January but pushed the vote back to February.

District officials floated the idea of paying for tuition for freshmen attending SD2 as early as December, but had concerns about potential legal problems regarding paying another district to educate students while still offering educational services to those students.

A public comment letter supporting the academy but opposing tuition payments reflects that concern, though not on legal grounds:

“I understand that Lockwood is trying to give families an option to be nice, however these are funds that can be used at Lockwood. We should not be sending funds to another district to be nice, or to educate a student that can be educated at Lockwood.”

The tuition payment does have specific conditions.

To qualify for the tuition payment, students will have to be approved by School District 2 by July 1 and then approved by Lockwood trustees that month. Students will not be able to change high schools, and once the list is approved, no additional students will be added even in subsequent years that Lockwood decides to pay tuition. The list will be approved on a year-by-year basis.

School District 2 also approves out-of-district students on a year-by-year basis.

Under its policy, the district must review a student's academic and disciplinary records and consider whether admitting that student "would require hiring additional staff or providing educational services not currently offered or would create crowding of existing classes."

Trustees must sign off on the enrollment of each out-of-district student. Tuition costs would be charged to parents, and parents would be responsible for transportation.

In January, 87 of the 120 Lockwood eighth-graders have signed up for the freshman academy, Lockwood administrators said. That could leave the district paying about $46,000 in tuition if all of those students end up attending Billings high schools.

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