Student safety is one of the primary needs being addressed with the $158 million in bonds that voters approved for Missoula County public schools in 2015, MCPS Superintendent Mark Thane told Monday's monthly meeting of City Club Missoula.
Thane was one of three MCPS leaders Monday who outlined how the district is spending the bond money. He also addressed the importance of security following last month’s school shooting in Florida that killed 17 people.
Following that shooting, MCPS had a handful of threats at its high schools, including a day when Big Sky High School went into lockdown after a threatening message was found in a locker room.
“We need to provide an environment that provides the greatest level of security for our students,” Thane said.
Part of the updates to the schools include electronic locks with key card access. Thane said the doors can be programmed differently to provide staff and students access depending on their needs. A student who comes to the building early for a weight-training program, for example, would be able to get into a door near that area that would otherwise be locked at that time.
As of the fall, MCPS has sold the entire $158 million in bonds, with executive director of business and operations Pat McHugh saying it managed to get below 3 percent interest, despite anticipating a rate of 3.5 percent.
The district is trying to keep the proceeds of the bonds going to local companies as much as possible, Thane said. Of the first 31 different professional firms hired for bond projects (including architects, contractors and the like), 26 had an office in Missoula.
“We’re really an economic driver in the community,” he said.
Mental health professionals also work in each school, and Thane said the district has put together teams including counselors, administrators and law enforcement that follow a specific threat assessment protocol whenever an issue arises.
McHugh also outlined a pair of operating levies the district will likely ask voters to approve on a May ballot, including $305,000 for the elementary district and more than $171,000 for the high schools. The district’s board will vote on final numbers for the measures on Tuesday.
But even if the levies pass, McHugh estimated that taxes for the elementary district will rise $9.54 per year on a $200,000 valuation home this year, while taxes in the high school district will actually decrease $4.11 dollars, largely due to more funding from the state.
Still, Thane said school funding has been shifting from state funding to local taxpayers, a trend he wants to see reversed.
“I think we need to broaden out tax structure and thereby our support to schools,” he said.
Elise Guest, the district’s executive director of teaching and learning, said common complaint is that MCPS spends too much school time on testing. The district put together a task force last year that narrowed the standardized testing process to a single test, administered three times a year to check if students are keeping up with their grade-level standards.
“We have to capitalize on every single moment we have with our kids,” Guest said.
MCPS also plans to pilot an “early kindergarten” program starting in the fall, with three classrooms — roughly 60 children — taking part. Thane said recruitment for the pilot project will start in the spring, and the classes will be held at the Jefferson School building during the 2018-2019 term.
An audience member wondered what was being done to make sure that the millions of dollars in backlogged deferred maintenance that eventually led to the 2015 bonds didn’t happen again in the future.
Thane said that realistically, MCPS doesn’t have the capacity to undertake major projects — like putting on new roofs or replacing boilers — without voter approval, as state law doesn’t allow them to roll over budgets to build up an account. A new building reserve levy likely will be put forward soon that would let the district pay for larger maintenance projects for several years, but Thane said it’s likely that, decades from now, the district would approach voters to approve another large bond to cover major projects.
The superintendent was asked what the district plans for some of its unoccupied buildings or those that are being used by someone other than MCPS. While he didn’t provide specifics for the former Prescott School building — currently being leased to Missoula International School, which plans to build a new school — or the former Whittier School building, Thane said the district is trying to figure out what to do with several empty pieces of land it owns around Missoula.
Last summer, the district regained ownership of the former Missoula College building just off South Avenue near Sentinel High School. Thane said that building needs some significant maintenance, and that it’s possible the district will sell vacant properties — such as plots in the Linda Vista and South Hills areas — to pay for that remodeling.
Thane said he thinks MCPS will hang onto the former Mount Jumbo school building in East Missoula, with the hope that at some point the population becomes large enough to reopen it. Mount Jumbo was leased to Walla Walla College, and then used for students during the construction of the new Lowell Elementary.
A recent district survey found that about 150 elementary-age kids lived in the area — not enough to sustain a school right now, but Thane said he sees East Missoula as a residential growth area. In the meantime, the district plans to find a new tenant for the building.
April’s City Club will feature a State of the Community address with Mayor John Engen, County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier and University of Montana President Seth Bodnar.