United States of America

Executive Summary

By signing the attached letter, you are joining other Helena-area residents in formally requesting that the Helena School Board of Trustees conduct more thorough analysis of educational and facility needs in the District, and to work with members of the community to develop a range of reasonable alternatives for consideration.

Through this letter, we are requesting that the Board prepare a comprehensive long-range plan to include a complete listing of deficiencies, planned improvements and a schedule for phased implementation. The analysis in this plan would specifically include:

• A complete, side-by-side comparison of alternatives for closures, consolidations, expansions and new construction for each K-12 facility in the District.
• A realistic forecast of cost savings/increases associated with each alternative.
• A detailed analysis of academic performance in our existing “4-3” schools (Four Georgians and Rossiter).
• A detailed accounting of the cumulative social, economic and environmental impacts of each alternative.

Our collective goal is to provide an outstanding learning environment for the children of our community, to preserve and enhance the character of our community, and to do so in a socially and financially sound manner.

The Helena community recognizes and supports the need for a significant bond issue to fund long-overdue investments in infrastructure improvements in the Helena School District; however, the current proposal has created extraordinary friction and discontent and must be modified before the Board takes any further action.

Members of the community are concerned with the following:

• The Helena School District Board of Trustees previously adopted a plan for school renovation and expansion, but has since abandoned that plan without formal discussion, explanation or action;
• The Board and Superintendent provided for the establishment of a Bond Committee to explore options to address identified needs, and this exercise failed to achieve consensus amongst participants;
• The Superintendent, without the consent of the Bond Committee or the community has unilaterally developed a plan with little supportive data or analysis;
• Failure of a bonding ballot measure this fall will represent a significant setback for the entire Helena community and must be avoided; and
• The Helena community expects and deserves objective analysis and a transparent and fully-informed decision-making process.

For these reasons, we the undersigned formally petition the Helena School District Board of Trustees to more fully consider the following factors in the development and deliberation of reasonable alternatives for long-term investment in the education of the children of our community.

It is not possible to fully address and fund immediate and near-term needs of the District in a single bond issue; yet the current Board of Trustees cannot legally bind the options of any future Board. We understand the conundrum, but believe it is imperative that the Board clearly articulate a vision for the future through a comprehensive long-range plan. A complete listing of deficiencies, planned improvements and a phased implementation plan accomplishes two things: 1) it acknowledges and commemorates the concerns and priorities of the broader community at this point in time; and 2) it improves the likelihood that a bond will be approved by the voters this fall.

All of the inputs for financial analysis are fluid, yet the presentations from the Superintendent to date have included only current, static figures. The Board must recognize that the current demographic assumptions on student populations, residential locations, and district boundaries can and will shift over time and the plan must be flexible enough to deal with those changes. The Board must also recognize that the existing salary, benefits, operations, maintenance and utilities costs associated with each individual educational facility in the District changes on an annual basis due to staff turnover, deferred maintenance, and inflation. A realistic forecast of savings for (or possibly increased costs to) the District must include a detailed phasing plan including assumptions on which facilities will close on what schedule, and what staff will be eliminated through natural attrition on what schedule.

Once a detailed financial model has been assembled, the Board can then conduct objective analysis on the “Mosaic Plan,” Dr. Kultgen’s current proposal and any other reasonable alternatives developed during this process. At present, the community has seen a planning-level analysis of facility needs through the Mosaic Plan which tallied total costs at over $100 million. Dr. Kultgen’s proposal is capped at $85 million, but remains unclear on what exactly will be accomplished. Of particular note is the complete exclusion of any discussion of middle school needs and financing options. Each alternative must include consistent assumptions on deficiencies, necessary improvements in physical plant across the District, future capacity requirements, and a phasing plan for implementation.

Dr. Kultgen has presented the “4-3 school” as the most suitable model for district-wide use, yet the community has not been provided with any detailed quantitative and qualitative analysis of our existing 4-3 schools. The Board should examine and fully understand the factors that contribute to success in the model represented at Four Georgians, and relative failure at Rossiter. Any plans for further development of the 4-3 model on a limited or wholesale basis in the Helena School District must include explicit details on basic requirements for success based on our local experience and that of other schools across the state and the region.

Individuals and families make home purchase and lifestyle choices based on the size, location and quality of area schools. Closure and the sale of school properties will have an irreversible impact on the very fabric of our community. In its deliberations, the Board must make a detailed accounting of the cumulative impacts of each and every school closure, consolidation and re-districting decision contemplated by the range of alternatives. Factors including, but not necessarily limited to impacts on travel patterns, impacts on safety of students walking and biking to school, impacts on neighboring residential property values, impacts on tax base, impacts on community character, impacts on parental involvement in school functions, impacts on student involvement in after-school activities, impacts on availability of multiple-use facilities such as neighborhood parks/playgrounds/meeting rooms. These are real and tangible factors that must be considered as the impacts go far beyond those typically under consideration by a school board.

With better and more complete information, the community is much more likely to come together in rational and objective support of a plan that can clearly articulate needs and identify a responsible solution. The undersigned will identify a committee of experts to provide whatever technical assistance the Board needs or desires to accomplish the tasks outlined above. Our collective goal is to provide an outstanding learning environment for the children of our community, to preserve and enhance the character of our community, and to do so in a socially and financially sound manner.

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The Helena School Board Petition petition to boardoftrustees@helena.k12.mt.us was written by Darryl James and is in the category Education at GoPetition.