When new high school principal Shawnda Zahara-Harris looks out over the South Elementary School campus, she sees a far brighter future for career and technical education than a building sandwiched next to the bus barn can offer. 

The conversion of South, a kindergarten-only building, into a high school supplement and construction of a new elementary school on Laurel's east end are the defining projects of the bond proposal, for which mail ballots are due Nov. 7. 

Laurel superintendent Linda Filpula, right, and high school principal Shawnda Zahara-Harris talk about the proposed bond for the district to expand career and technical education Friday, September 22, 2017. CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

The ballot is split into an elementary and high school question — $37.6 million for grades K-8 and $14.9 million for grades 9-12. Combined, the bond would cost about $125 per year on a $100,000 home. 

Laurel trustees and school officials held months of public meetings with architects and school planners, identifying priorities and winnowing down building proposals that would meet goals. 

Beefing up career and technical education was a top priority. The current high school doesn't have much physical room to expand; it's hemmed in by athletic and parking facilities. 

Laurel superintendent Linda Filpula, left, and high school principal Shawnda Zahara-Harris talk about the proposed bond for the district to expand career and technical education Friday, September 22, 2017. CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

But South has acres of green space west of the school, which could provide a fertile future for agricultural programs. Renovations would re-purpose classrooms, and plans call for specialized additions for woods, metals, auto and vo-ag classes. 

Laurel's woods, metals and automotive classes are held in a sheet-metal structure that distinctly resembles the bus barn located next to it. Space and safety constraints have forced the school to limit enrollment in classes, and it's difficult to accommodate up-to-date equipment. For example, beginning woods classes can only have 15 students, despite higher demand, Zahara-Harris said. 

Tech ed teacher Joe May gives student Brett Larkins feedback on a weld during class at Laurel High School on Friday, September 22, 2017. CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

For Superintendent Linda Filpula, expanded career and technical education plays to Laurel's economic strengths. 

The new facilities would help the school offer certification programs and apprenticeships that help students land jobs immediately out of high school, she said, or that can help them pay their way through college. 

"We have a refinery, a railroad, manufacturing," she said. "We want our kids to be able to graduate from our schools and stay in our community. And so many of them leave."

South Elementary School in Laurel participates in a mentoring program in cooperation with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Yellowstone County. Funding concerns are threatening the longstanding program. Pictured Sept. 22, 2017. CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff


One of those goals isn't so much an ideal to work toward as a pressing problem. Laurel's enrollment is growing. A middle school with grades 5-8 that was already squeezed last year added 20 more students, up to 700. High school enrollment sits at about 650.

Combined with typical additions of students from outlying K-8 districts who choose Laurel High, that could mean 800 students in the high school in a few years. 

"Laurel High School does not have the space for 800 students," Zahara-Harris said. 

Laurel High School freshman Braeden Foos works on a weld during class Friday, September 22, 2017. CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

Laurel's growth has already outpaced demographic projections made in 2013 by more than 100 students. 

A new elementary school for grades 3-5 would help ease pressure on the middle school, removing fifth-graders. Laurel has an option to purchase about 30 acres of land just off East Main Street on Eleanor Roosevelt Road for the new school. 

Kindergartners who attended South Elementary would move to West Elementary. Renovations would add classrooms and a gym to accommodate grades K-3. At the high school, a second gym would be added and interior remodels would increase classroom space. 

Graff Elementary School, currently home to grades 3-4, would be repurposed as an administrative building. The current administrative building at 410 Colorado Avenue would be sold. The plans also address dozens of deferred maintenance projects. 

Laurel superintendent Linda Filpula looks at land to the west of South Elementary School that could be used for the district's Laurel High School Career and Technical Campus on Friday, September 22, 2017. CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

Eventually, crammed classrooms affect student learning, Filpula said. 

"That's a hard pill to swallow."

The plan to grapple with growth was selected after a months-long facilities planning process. School officials hope it will be a 20-year fix for Laurel's growth. 

Engine parts sit on a shelf in the current career and technical education building at Laurel High School on Friday, September 22, 2017. The current building doesn't have room to pull vehicles inside to work on them. CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

"We've whittled at it, we've changed some things, we added and switched around," said Dan Story, who works for a local agricultural company and advocated for the expansion at a May meeting. "Laurel's going to grow, whether we decide to do anything with this or not."