There are lots of Bond Plans that
- do not devastate our Elementary School System,
- do not divide the communities it serves, and
- do not leave more than 2,000 of our kids in classrooms without safe, healthy and revitalized spaces appropriate for 21st Century Learning.
However, if we really want a plan for improving our school facilities which, once it is done, unites (rather than divides) the community in its efforts continue to move forward with quality education for all its kids, then it can’t be a top down plan.
The Community and the Board need to undergo a process of an honest neighborhood by neighborhood, school by school give and take discussion, professionally organized and led by a neutral and independent party. A process that is community-driven and results in a bottom up plan for the vision first and then the bond plan second.
If we try, surely we can come to a consensus on facilities improvements that benefit ALL our Helena area kids and do not foster permanent fractures in our Greater Helena Community.
A Thorough Look at the Research Is Needed
A BETTER WAY is possible. There are alternatives that make meaningful school improvements for ALL of our K-8 kids. All school buildings must be made more technology and learning friendly with adaptable, technology ready classroom spaces and new durable and flexible furnishings. All district-identified life/safety problems must be fixed together with the most serious deferred maintenance issues.
Furthermore, the Governor signed newly increased bonding capacity into law for the elementary district. This allows more equitable funding for needed facility improvements in all K-8 schools. This increased bonding capacity combined with a thorough look at the research and the right process could lead us to a solid bond plan that is backed by a solid vision.
Let’s talk about the research used in creating a vision and bond plan. We need to look closely at school siting guidelines and research on school size.
School Siting Guidelines
One suggestion for when we undergo a smarter visioning process is to adopt school siting guidelines that make sense for our community and the future of our community. Oregon’s School Siting Guidelines’ four main points about good school siting are a sample of what we’d like to see happen here in Helena.
Four Main Points in School Siting
- School siting decisions benefit the entire community.
Public schools educate our youth to be lifelong learners, engaged citizens, and effective workers in an ever-changing world. Schools are vital institutions in our society. In addition to educating young people, they provide physical places for the community to gather for cultural or sporting events, walk the dog, or play in the playground or school field. Their location affects the social,economic and physical character of a city.Through coordinated planning, school districts, local governments, and community residents select school locations that advance livability goals strongly supported by Oregonians: vibrant communities, good schools, and transportation choices. Well-coordinated school facility planning and comprehensive community planning increases the likelihood that taxpayer dollars will be used efficiently; that school facility and community planning will support, rather than work against, each other; and that community facilities can be jointly purchased, developed, maintained, and used.
- The school site takes full advantage of existing resources.
School sites close to existing infrastructure reduce the need for new facilities. In short, by making good use of existing resources, schools can reduce their physical and financial impact on the community and the environment. Integrating well-designed schools into existing or proposed neighborhoods efficiently uses streets, sidewalks and other infrastructure. Preserving historic school buildings helps maintain neighborhood identity and treasured community landmarks, and reusing existing buildings reduces land consumption. School sites that are close to existing play fields or open space provide students with exercise opportunities and access to natural resources.
- The school site is easily and safely accessibly by walking, biking, and transit.
An important aspect of liveable communities is the option to safely walk, bike, and use transit to reach key destinations. A well-sited school gives school children more transportation choices. This is good for children and good for the community for several reasons: (1) greater accessibility reinforces schools as community focal points; (2) reducing the number of cars on the road decreases traffic congestion and air pollution; (3) opportunities for daily exercise encourage children to develop healthy lifestyles; and (4) children acquire life skills and habits that incorporate a variety of transportation options.
- The school site is a community focal point.
Through good siting decisions, schools become more than places to educate students; they serve as community focal points and neighborhood anchors. Community members use the school facility after school hours. Neighbors interact with each other at the school site. A school’s proximity and easy access enhance participation by neighborhood residents in school activities. This, in turn, strengthens the neighborhood’s sense of ownership toward the school and its willingness to take care of and support it.
School Siting Sources
If you are interested in reading more about these school siting guidelines click here: Oregon School Siting Handbook
Another good siting document comes from the Environmental Protection Agency here: EPA School Siting Guidelines
Here are some policy recommendations for removing barriers to community-centered schools: National Trust for Historic Preservation: Helping Johnny Walk to School-Policy Recommendations
Last, here is a website that has links to several articles about the importance of school siting to home values and how the proximity of schools factors in to home buying/pricing decisions: Field Guide to Schools and the Home Buying Decision
School Sizing Guidelines
This bond is the first step toward a vision that creates all BIG schools in Helena. Is that what we want? Again, we need to have a visioning process that looks thoroughly at the research around not only school siting but also school size. Making big (4-3) elementary schools doesn’t equate to better education. We have proof that here in Helena. Four Georgian’s and Rossiter are both 4-3 schools. While Four Georgian’s tests scores are consistently at the top, Rossiter’s are dead last in some areas and middle of the road in others. 4-3 schools don’t mean better education. Here’s three of many articles on the benefits of small schools on student achievement.
“But in recent years researchers have discovered that the cost savings provided by large schools have had a negative effect on student achievement and graduation rates. As schools get bigger, student achievement declines and larger schools have higher rates of absenteeism, dropouts and discipline problems.”
“We find significant negative effects of large schools on student math and reading achievement.”
“Its [Bryant] students succeed on many indicators.” Why is this important? Because this bond is a first step toward closing many neighborhood schools and Bryant is one of those. Vote no!
If you still need convincing that consolidation isn’t always better click here for a long list of books and articles.
One of A Thousand Alternative Bond Plans
Here’s a recommended plan for getting the schools we need in the valley and taking care of a good portion of the life/safety concerns and deferred maintenance in all of our elementary schools, including the two middle schools. Again, this is just one of many alternatives our community could come up with together where ALL kids benefit.
Notes for One of A Thousand Alternative Bond Plans
Over sizing Smith and Warren for consolidation purposes is unneeded and foolish. The District could remodel and enlarge Darcy to a large 4-3 school rather than demolishing and building new. These and other obvious changes would provide more than $20 million dollars to allocate for needed facility improvements for all K-5 schools plus the 6th – 8th grade middle schools on an equitable basis. This would enable the District to make all K-8 schools safe, healthy and academically appropriate places for our Helena Area kids.
- All school buildings must be made more technology and learning friendly with adaptable, technology ready classroom spaces and new durable and flexible furnishings.
- All Life/Safety problems must be fixed together with the most serious deferred maintenance issues.
- Jim Darcy, through a combination of remodeled and new space, could have an increased capacity of 500 students for a lot less.
- Rossiter, already has a capacity in the 500 student range and could be vastly improved for a lot less.
- Smith. There is no need for a BIG 4-3 school at Smith. There are a total of 231 kids in Smith’s attendance area. The new development east of Smith in East Helena’s Elementary District.
- Warren. There is no need for a Mega school at Warren. There are a total of 369 kids in Warren’s attendance area. There is already more capacity at Smith and Warren Schools combined than there are kids in their combined attendance areas.
- Four Georgians. It is our newest school. This amount is reasonable.
- Central School. Central is a tough one. We want to see it reopened as a neighborhood school and stay a neighborhood school. However, the Superintendent says he will eventually close this school. He has indicated that it may be re-purposed as an Administration Building. They have $9 million listed as deferred maintenance and another district board document from June of 2014 states Central needs $17 million. We have to believe that putting $8 million is a band-aid to get current kids back in the school, but until it is clear how this school will be used, this alternative plan suggests $2 million seismic repairs with other repairs necessary to stop further deterioration is sadly, all that should be done.
- HMS . The District has identified in detail $8 Million Dollars in deferred maintenance at HMS. About $500,000 of this is identified by the District as Life/Safety issues. The Life/Safety Issues together with the most egregious Deferred Maintenance items should be addressed. Additionally some remodeling and addition of new space should be done to allow a correction of the imbalance of enrollment between C.R. Anderson and HMS.
- C.R. Anderson. The District has identified in detail $5.5 Million Dollars in deferred maintenance at C.R. Anderson. Again, about $500,000 of this is identified by the District as Life/Safety issues. The Life/Safety Issues together with the most egregious Deferred Maintenance items should be addressed together with making the building more technology and learning friendly. Together with improvements at HMS, the severe overcrowding can be mitigated.
- Jefferson, Broadwater, Bryant, Kessler & Hawthorne. The District has identified in detail 14 Million Dollars in Deferred Maintenance. The Superintendent has publicly said (and confirmed) that Bryant, Kessler & Hawthorn will eventually be closed. When pressed, he gave a time line of 7-10 years. Taking him at his word, these schools will have several generations of real, live kids in them for a long time. ALL these kids deserve schools that are safe, healthy and have appropriate learning environments.
- Ray Bjork. Apparently the district is writing off Ray Bjork. The District has identified, in detail, 3 Million Dollars in Deferred Maintenance of which $630,000 is listed as costs to cure Life/Safety issues. There should be no further occupancy of this building as a school.