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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

School Bond Requests Add Up As State And Federal Funding Wane

Fewer state and federal dollars are filling Montana school district coffers, so school officials are turning to local voters for help.

Bob Vogel of the Montana School Boards Association says bonding requests are becoming more common."Local voters are going to be hard pressed to keep up with all of those needs."

School districts in Helena and Missoula are asking voters to support significant school bond issues.

Missoula County Public School officials are putting the finishing touches on two major bond issues that could go to voters this November. One is an $88-million bond for local K-8 schools. A separate high school bond totals $70-million.

Three generations of Melanie Charlson's family attended Missoula's Hellgate High School.

Teaching techniques and course offerings have changed over the years at Hellgate, but Charlson says some things, regrettably, haven't changed a bit.

"One of those is the boiler. The current boiler in the oldest section of Hellgate was installed in 1941,  74 years ago."

Charlson, president of the Missoula teachers union, says the boiler has been patched repeatedly to save the expense of buying a new system.

"We as a district have worked very hard to seek the most life possible out of big-ticket items such as roofs, boilers and heating infrastructure, but we've utilized most of these items to their maximum capacity. It's time for a serious change." 

Both the elementary and high school bond measures would be used to repair and replace aging school buildings and slow, outdated technology.

Helena voters are having a similar community discussion. Ballots will be mailed out early next month for a $70-million elementary facility bond.

School superintendent Kent Kultgen says Helena’s 11 K-5 elementary schools are in dire need of updates.

"What really brought this all down to it is the aging of our facilities, and they’re coming to the end of their life-cycle for technology and the electrical components and capacity to meet the educational needs is just not there. Restrooms are not meeting our needs; there are too few of them and many are not ADA accessible."

Opponents like Helena’s Alan Nicholson agrees that those schools are in dire need of important renovations, but he will not support the bond issue.

Nicholson’s a former teacher who says the bulk of the revenue generated from the bond – over $60 million - creates five modern, large schools and significantly renovates another. He says that leaves only $8 million for the seven remaining K-5 schools. Middle schools in the elementary district would get nothing.

"This is just a mis-allocation of the funds to build large, new schools for the purpose of consolidation and leave most of our kids, and seven out of 13 schools basically out of the equation."

Superintendent Kultgen says the bond is not about consolidation. What’s more, he says Helena’s middle and high schools won’t be left out of the equation for long.

"As I’ve told all of our community, hang onto your hats because we’re going to have to talk about middle school issues, and we’re going to have to talk about high school issues, and that will be future discussion.

Asked how far in the future and what sort of needs will arise, Kultgen replies "Immediately."

Kultgen says Helena’s middle and high schools are facing the same pressing infrastructure needs as local elementary schools.

Bond opponent Alan Nicholson doubts district officials will immediately tackle the next bond issue after the June election.

Even if they did, he says voters still will likely be presented with other potential local bond issues, including one to fund a new $40-million dollar county jail.

"And there are other bonds coming down the pike.  The bond of the operation of the fairgrounds with a brand new building out there failed about a year ago, so that bond’s gotta be run again. The taxpayers are going to be asked to bond for a great deal."

Back in Missoula, Jim Conkle plans to support both the proposed elementary and high school measures, but only at the expense of all future local bond issues. Conkle is a local businessman and volunteer school board committee member.

"Our kids need to have good schools and so, I'm willing to eat that, but I'm just being honest; I'll be voting against the Missoula Public Library, I will not vote for any extension of Mountain Line, I will not be voting for extension of the fairgrounds."

Conkle says Missoula has a spending problem. He thinks voters and elected officials must do a better job of prioritizing local needs. He says the tab is starting to add up and a fiscal hangover isn’t far behind.

The Montana School Boards Association’s Bob Vogel notes the Montana legislature last session failed to fund any school facility projects, leaving districts little choice but to rely on school bond issues to pay for important projects.

He says other states are dealing with the same problems, and in some cases are developing innovative solutions.

"You know, Wyoming uses their natural resource revenues to a large extent for their school facilities and have been very successful in doing that, but there are other states [where] infrastructure is a huge issue including schools."

Helena’s school bond ballots will be mailed out next week. They’re due back by June 18th.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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