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The Northern Hotel's kitchen is a satellite classroom where six Billings high school students are learning culinary arts under the direction of a professional chef.

More than 80 Billings Career Center students have completed or soon will complete certified nursing assistant training this academic year. They were trained by CNA instructors from three Billings health care businesses in four simulated patient rooms equipped by donations from local businesses.

These are just two examples of how Billings businesses are directly supporting local public education. The business community stepped up support for career and technical education a few years ago when School District 2 leaders asked for help that the district could not afford on its own. More than a dozen local businesses responded by agreeing to fund half the salary of the district's first-ever director of career and technical education in a school district serving nearly 17,000 K-12 students.

Representatives of those business donors also serve on the district's CTE Advisory Board. Mike Nelson, owner of the Northern Hotel is one of those board members. A graduate of Billings West High, the father of a Skyview High grad and husband of a teacher, Nelson says supporting public education is naturally the right thing to do.

"When the Northern had the chance to help fund (CTE), I felt lucky to have a say in what they were doing," Nelson told The Gazette. "School resources are scarce. They are very careful with the ones they have."

One of the Career Center culinary students who studied at the Northern kitchen last school year is an employee now, Nelson said. Another is studying at a professional chef school.

David Trost, CEO for St. John's United, also serves on the CTE Advisory Board. Like other Billings health care organizations, St. John's is always hiring and recruiting staff. Trost expects that some of the Career Center students who trained as CNAs will be looking for jobs right out of high school; they can get jobs that pay better than minimum wage immediately. Other students will use their CNA training as a step toward careers in nursing, medicine and therapy by acquiring crucial experience in the health care field before applying to highly competitive university programs.

Both Trost, who has two children attending Billings Public Schools, and Nelson see great value in boosting career counseling. Each Billings high school guidance counselor is responsible for about 400 students. With all the testing and scheduling they are required to do — along with addressing student/family crises — there's little time for individualized career counseling. The levy on the May 7 ballot will fund career counselors at each of the high schools. Their job will be to help students find their own career paths.

Trost is concerned with boosting career planning to prevent students from dropping out. "We see a lot of (job) applicants who don't have GEDs and did not complete high school," he said. "They are not employable."

With no voted levy increase for 12 years, Billings public high schools have been using many of the same textbooks and teaching materials for 15 years, some texts are 20 years old. These outdated texts are inadequate for teaching students in 2019 and are literally falling apart. Students who grew up with personal computers and cell phones are required to study out of books so old that the contents aren't even online.

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If voters approve the Billings high school mill levy on May 7, district leaders will use most of the money to start replacing outdated textbooks and classroom equipment. It will take about five years to update all courses and then put Billings schools on a regular curriculum update schedule of seven years. Lack of modern texts and classroom equipment now keeps our schools from offering technical classes that require expensive equipment and precludes the offering of honors and advanced placement classes for lack of the college-level instructional materials required.

The Career and Technical Education Advisory Board has endorsed the Billings high school levy, saying: "education advancement is a team sport" and that it "fully supports the School District 2 levy as an additional workforce development tool for our community." Members are: 360 Office Solutions, Langlas & Associates, Northern Hotel, Dick Anderson Construction, Stockman Bank, Avitus Group, EBMS, Clocktower Inn, First Interstate Bank, Denny Menholt Chevrolet, Advanced Care Hospital of Montana, St. Vincent Healthcare, Billings Clinic, St. John's United, ExxonMobil, Cellular Plus. Billings Works, Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools and Big Sky Economic Development.

Educators have stretched limited resources to give students the best possible instruction. Students have taken remarkably good care of books that were manufactured for six or seven years of use. Businesses throughout Billings have stepped up to fill some staffing needs. It's time for voters to do their part. The proposed levy would cost homeowners about $5 for every $100,000 of market value in their property. A $200,000 home would have an annual tax increase of about $10.

This is a modest, well-planned request to provide basic educational tools and crucial career guidance to Billings high school students. Please vote for the levy and mail your ballot back to the Yellowstone County Elections Office so it arrives before May 7.

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