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A committee of Missoula business leaders, parents and community advocates gathered at Lowell Elementary on Tuesday to launch a campaign supporting $158 million in bonds for Missoula County Public Schools facilities.

To be decided by voters in November, the bonds include $70 million for MCPS high schools and $88 million for elementary schools.

If passed, the money will pay for renovations and replacement of schools, as well as improving student access to technology and taking steps to reduce future overcrowding.

Among Tuesday's speakers from the Invest in Missoula Schools ballot committee was Melanie Charlson, president of the Missoula Education Association teachers’ union.

She said inefficient heating systems at Lowell School mean that in the winter, students are wearing coats on the bottom floors and opening the windows on the top floors.

Across the district, she said, students lack access to reliable high-speed Internet and other modern technology, critical to learning today.

For too long, Charlson said, the process of dealing with these issues was to patch and piece together fixes as each new problem came along. In addition to her work with the teachers' union, Charlson said she is volunteering with the ballot committee as a taxpayer and a mother of Hellgate High School students.

“It’s time for a serious change,” she said. “It’s our responsibility as taxpayers to provide that environment.”

Charlson said the kickoff event is the start of a monthlong effort to educate the public on the needs of the school district.

“There are teachers (at Lowell) literally teaching in closets," she said. "There’s a staff bathroom where you can see through the floor. Every nook and cranny is being used."

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Daria Bedo, a senior at Hellgate High School, echoed the need to improve Missoula's school buildings and students' access to technology.

“It’s the 21st century and we don’t have the 21st century technology we need,” she said.

Money is “literally flying out the door” with inefficient heating systems and insulation and outdated boilers, said committee chair and CEO of United Way of Missoula County Susan Hay Patrick.

She said the ballot committee was speaking on behalf of more than 250 members of the community who have voiced their support for the bonds.

“It’s the right thing to do and it’s the responsible thing to do,” Hay Patrick said.

Between now and November's election, the committee will speak to civic groups, conduct school tours and knock on doors to convince voters of the bonds' importance.

“We understand it is a large sum, but our community has a history of investing in education,” Hay Patrick said.

The average age of MCPS school buildings is 57 years, the committee said. Lowell Elementary, where the rally was held, was built in 1909.

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Hay Patrick said good schools are one of the reasons why employers and families come to and stay in Missoula.

“We all succeed when we all do well. We’re asking voters today to make an investment in our collective future,” she said.

Retired Missoula high school teacher and historian Hal Stearns said the world has changed since he was in school, both as a student and an educator.

“When I was teaching, it was still the 20th century, and that meant blackboard and chalk,” Stearns said. “If we don’t get our schools up to par, we’re not going to give them what they need.”

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