In the weeks before $158 million in school bonds go before voters, the Missoula County Public Schools superintendent has been making the rounds to discuss the district's needs and how approval will improve the educational environment for students.
On Monday, Superintendent Mark Thane was the keynote speaker at City Club Missoula's monthly meeting. His topic was the $88 million elementary school bond and $70 million high school bond MCPS will put in front of voters this fall.
Ballots for the mail-in election will be sent out Oct. 12 and will be due back by Nov. 3.
“We really feel it’s critical to have an informed electorate in Missoula,” Thane said.
Before an audience at the DoubleTree Hotel, Thane went over the history of the bonds, from a building assessment that found millions of dollars in deferred maintenance needs to bringing together more than 200 community members to plan to address those needs into the future.
“Technology is critical to a 21st-century education,” Thane said, adding that even the most recent buildings in the district weren't designed with modern infrastructure in mind.
Several schools, such as Russell Elementary School and Washington Middle School, have modular classrooms that were brought in for temporary use and are still being used today, Thane said. If the elementary bond passes, part of the funds would be used to renovate or replace the schools to do away with the modulars.
Sentinel High School would also be renovated to integrate classes that are currently held in outbuildings, better using the available space, Thane said. In addition, he said, the current “campus style” arrangement creates a safety risk.
“We need to leave those doors unlocked all day so kids can come and go,” he said.
Other fixes proposed as part of the high school bond include renovations and maintenance at Hellgate High School, where one of two boilers failed last winter, as well as addressing a leaking roof at Big Sky High School. The bond also would add a processing kitchen to the Vo-Ag Center, construct a new building for the Willard Alternative High School program, and build a theater that originally was planned for Seeley-Swan High School but never came to be.
“This would be an opportunity, 50 years later, to complete the construction of that facility,” Thane said.
Dylan Haggart, a Sentinel student who serves as a student trustee for the district, also spoke at the City Club meeting, focusing on issues at his school.
Among them, Haggart said, was a heating system that doesn’t work properly. At the start of the last school year, he said, a science teacher took a photo of a thermometer in his class that read 102 degrees.
“It’s hard to learn – it’s really all-around really distracting,” Haggart said.
When using the Internet, getting a website to load was like “flipping a coin” – whether over a wired connection or Wi-Fi.
After the presentation, Thane took questions about the bonds from the audience.
One City Club member asked if any thought had been given to consolidating all the high schools on a single large campus instead of renovating each building. Thane said the district put together committees to evaluate options for each building, and an emphasis was placed on maintaining neighborhood schools that are within walking and biking distance for students.
“The committee came back and said the community values those schools as they were,” he said.
Thane also said that since about 92 percent of MCPS' general budget is tied to staff compensation, consolidating the high schools wouldn't result in significant savings. Staffing is tied to accreditation standards, and the district is already close to its limits, he said.
Answering a question about the impact to students, Thane said much of the maintenance would occur during summer, and the district is working on plans for temporary spaces for students during more intensive renovations.
Tim Descamps, a City Club board member, asked whether the amount of money MCPS is asking for is enough for the projects or if the district would have to ask voters for more in the future.
Thane said when planning for the bonds started, an initial “wish list” was put together. Since then, the MCPS Board of Trustees has cut that list to bring the bonds to a reasonable amount and brought in firms to develop accurate cost estimates.
“They said out of respect to the community, we have to pare this down to what is considered necessary,” Thane said.