It’s finally decision time for Missoula voters.

In a mail-in election that starts Oct. 12, Missoula County Public Schools is asking voters to approve a pair of school bonds totaling $158 million: $88 million for its elementary and middle schools, and $70 million for its high schools.

The bonds, if passed, will pay for deferred maintenance, technology and security upgrades, and renovation and construction projects.

The history of the bonds goes back to assessments MCPS conducted six years ago in every school. The reviews provided information to district officials from an energy audit at each school, as well as a look at the overall condition of the buildings.

Then came the recession, and Missoula schools, under the leadership of then-Superintendent Alex Apostle, chose not to ask taxpayers for the money needed to fix the many problems.

In 2010, the district took the next step that eventually led to this year’s bonds, bringing together more than 200 members of the community to design and develop a plan it calls the 21st Century Model of Education, a long-term strategy for the modernization of Missoula's schools.

In 2013, roughly 300 more MCPS staff, students and community members were assembled into teams at each school to determine the needs specific to that building and its community.

By the spring of 2014, all of the teams reported their findings to the district’s Board of Trustees.

“It became really viewed as an imperative to take action,” Superintendent Mark Thane said last week.

Under the 21st Century Model and other initiatives, Thane said MCPS has its first comprehensive, long-term plan since 1952.

This spring, after narrowing the projects to those considered most necessary and receiving assistance from professional development, architectural and engineering firms to estimate the cost of such sweeping improvements, school trustees voted to put $158 million in bonds before voters this fall.

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Thane said he considers the bonds similar to reinvesting in a home once it is paid off. The district has no debt at the elementary level and will only have about $6 million in debt at the high schools by the end of this fiscal year.

“Once you have paid off your house, now after 30 years you might need to attend to the roof, the carpet, the heating,” Thane said.

The superintendent said there are several different philosophies about how to cover long-term maintenance costs, including always carrying bond debt and spacing projects over time.

But Missoula's school district has chosen to take another approach and put the needs before the community in a single request, with a unified message.

“Splitting would mean constantly going back to voters and would seem like some projects are less important. I think we’re best served by having that big picture,” Thane said.

Mail-in ballots, which include both bonds, will arrive in voters' hands in about 10 days, and must be returned by Nov. 3.

The elementary bond would increase taxes on a $200,000 property by roughly $144 per year. The high school bond would increase taxes by $72 per year. Both bonds are for 20 years, and people living in the elementary district would pay both tax increases.

Even if both bond measures are approved, the district will not sell all at once, meaning the full tax impact won’t be felt right away.

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Partly because the projects have yet to be designed and bid, the school district does not have a firm timeline for the order in which building renovations and improvements will take place, apart from saying that Lowell School, which will be extensively remodeled, and Franklin School, which will be entirely rebuilt at its current site, will come in the first wave of projects.

Designing the improvements at Hellgate High School will also likely come early in the process.

Thane said deferred maintenance at the schools, such as the installation of new boilers and roofs, will be scheduled over the summers to the greatest extent possible, to avoid disrupting school.

Some of the improvements to technology and security would wait until a school’s renovation work is scheduled, but Thane said those upgrades would be evaluated project by project, and wherever purchases could be made immediately and not be lost in later renovations, they would be.

“We’re not going to pave a street just to tear it up and put in a water main,” he said.

Overall, he said the district’s hope is that if both bonds pass, the vast majority of the projects would be completed within a six-year time frame.

Thane said if the bonds don’t pass, Missoula's schools will continue to be hamstrung by outdated technology.

The buildings will continue to lack secure entryways, where staff can see who is coming and going. There will be no replacement of inefficient and aging heating systems that repeatedly require patches to keep running.

Modular spaces, brought in temporarily at schools across the district, will remain in place, and MCPS likely will have to bring in even more to meet the needs of a growing student population.

If voters say no, these needs won't go away, and the costs to fix them will only go up, the superintendent said.

“This is a significant ask of the community and we recognize that,” Thane said. “This is a new day in the district.”

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Coming Monday: In-depth looks at the bond-funded technology and school safety improvements.

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