Imagine that the training manuals at your workplace were 15 to 20 years old — so outdated that there was no longer technical support for them. Imagine that your employer couldn't afford to buy tools needed to train new workers. Such a scenario would be untenable in today's business and industry, yet that is the situation Billings high school teachers and students confront every day. The lack of up-to-date instructional materials and tools is just as problematic in education as it is in workplaces.
That is why the elected, unpaid trustees of Billings Public Schools have placed a high school operating levy request on the May 7 ballot. Other Montana school districts, including most in Yellowstone County, also requesting voter support on May 7. The Billings high school district has not received a voted levy increase in 12 years. The lack of locally voted financial support over 12 years has left the schools without the means to replace textbooks and classroom equipment on a regular basis.
"The lion's share of the levy will go for instructional resources, so we can get on a seven-year rotation," said Superintendent Greg Upham. The requested $971,000 levy won't be enough to update all the textbooks immediately. The plan is to replace outdated textbooks over the next five years using the levy increase. After that, money would be used to replace old computer labs and get textbooks on a regular rotation for replacement.
"My entire textbook budget is $60,000," Billings high school curriculum director Chris Olszewski told The Gazette this week. New textbooks (digital texts plus printed textbooks for students who don't have computer access at home) can cost $16,000 per classroom. Billings Public Schools have hundreds of classrooms between West, Senior, Skyview and the Career Center.
Billings public schools are unable to offer some technical, honors and Advanced Placement classes for lack of textbooks, equipment and classroom resources. For example, the district has never offered Advanced Placement classes in chemistry because none of the chemistry labs are equipped for the complex, multi-day assignments AP courses demand.
"The labs are so outdated, it's hard to do regular class, we can't go beyond basics," Olszewski said. From poor ventilation and sinks that are too small to Bunsen burners that don't get sufficient propane to heat up, the labs are inadequate.
Billings public high schools were only able to start offering their first agriculture class at the Career Center this year after obtaining a state grant and raising donations from local businesses.
The district doesn't have money to purchase a diesel engine for a mechanics class. "We don't have a single diesel engine kids can work on," said Olszewski.
"A textbook isn't the print-only anymore, it's digital learning, too," Olszewski explained. "Some of our books are 15 to 20 years old. We're talking very old Windows and Apple programs that are no longer supported."
Why not have all online books? Then state law would require the district to provide a computer or tablet for every student, a requirement that would cost about $3 million, according to Olszewksi, adding: "This levy will not get us to a one-to-one solution."
In addition to the textbook update, the proposed levy would be used to hire a career liaison for each of the four high school buildings to work individually with students on sketching out career pathways and arranging job shadows with local employers.
The proposed annual levy of $971,000 is less than $187 per Billings student. The proposed levy would cost the owner of a $200,000 house about $10 per year. This is a modest request to start addressing a serious need for the updated learning materials that our children must have to do the jobs that Yellowstone County and Montana are counting on them to fill. As baby boomers retire and our community grows, who will take care of us tomorrow if we fail to prepare these young people today?
Support the May 7 high school levy for students and for your own sake.