Subscribe for 17¢ / day
Group hopes to raise money to buy new high school texts
Sarah Nigh, left, and Connie Wardell meet with School District 2 high school curriculum director Shaun Harrington on Thursday to discuss ways to raise money to buy new textbooks for students.

A group of parents and local businesspeople is launching a campaign to raise money to buy textbooks for Billings' high schools in hopes of bringing books in all subjects current to within five years.

The budget for Billings School District 2 textbooks was stripped in May by the board after voters rejected a $2.6 million high school mill levy.

The resulting budget shortfall of more than $1 million halted curriculum development and the purchase of textbooks. That leaves the district with just $130,000 to cover the cost of replacement and repair of the oldest books and perhaps a few smaller purchases.

Spearheaded by Connie Wardell and Sarah Nigh, the grass-roots effort is still under development, but interest has been strong. More than 10 businesspeople and parents have begun fundraising, and many more have expressed interest in donating.

"You talk to people, and it's not that they don't support the schools, it's that they want their money to go to what's important like textbooks and maintenance," Wardell said. "It should be like a mortgage or rent money; you shouldn't touch it."

Wardell, who owns a real estate investment and property management business, has been active in city government and the school board for several years, attending numerous school district budget sessions. She also has run for City Council twice and once for the Legislature.

Nigh is the mother of four, including two high school students. She was active in the Arrowhead PTA and said she decided to start fundraising for textbooks after the mill levy failed in May. She said current textbooks provide a key connection between teachers and students in the learning process.

Shaun Harrington, the District 2 high school curriculum director, estimated it will take at least $1 million based on current enrollment to bring all the district's high school texts current to within five years.

Harrington said science and math textbooks top the priority list, followed by foreign languages and career and technology books and manuals.

While the need for new textbooks is immediate, Harrington said, the process of designing the curriculum and choosing the best books takes time. Curriculum groups are made up of teachers, and they take about a year to update the district's curriculum to meet state standards and to research the best textbooks for the new curriculum.

Starting next year, that process, called textbook adoption, will likely take longer because the board eliminated the high school curriculum director's position to balance the budget. This fall, Harrington will take over as principal at Castle Rock Middle School. Gail Surwell, the elementary curriculum director, will supervise the process for all grade levels next school year.

Textbook adoptions are already in the works for earth science, biology, algebra, geometry and French. Harrington is hopeful that by the beginning of the 2007-08 school year, the process will be finished and texts will be selected for those subjects.

Textbooks generally cost $65-$150 apiece.

This fall, new chemistry and Spanish books will be on the shelves at the high schools, paid for through the general fund. The 700 chemistry books cost $54,000, and the Spanish books for all grade levels in the high schools cost about $125,000.

Billings School District Interim Superintendent Jack Copps said he welcomes the donations but has some concerns.

"It's an unhealthy environment for a public school district to become dependent on private donations for basic supplies like textbooks," Copps said.

Donations can be made to the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools and earmarked for textbooks.

Harrington said the foundation is an ideal avenue for donations to the school district because it can carry a balance from one year to the next, allowing funds to accumulate. According to state law, the school district has to spend its entire general fund budget each year. Frequently, textbooks are purchased with any surplus funds at the end of the year, but those funds may not be enough for a full textbook adoption.

Contact Laura Tode at or 657-1392.