SB 107 would hurt students and taxpayers alike in places like Missoula, Helena, and East Helena.
Two of MEA-MFT’s member-leaders, Melanie Charlson and Sheri Postma, co-authored this excellent response to this dangerous bill. MEA-MFT strongly opposes this bill. Read on.
High school bill limits educational options
by JOSEPH KNAPP, ALEX APOSTLE, MELANIE CHARLSON and SHERI POSTMA
Op-Ed – Missoulian – January 18, 2015
Missoula voters need to be aware that Senate Bill 107 will be heard by the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee on Monday, Jan. 19. This bill allows any independent K-8 district with an enrollment of 1,000 or more students to expand to a K-12 district and leave their current high school district, without any vote of current district taxpayers.
SB 107 is a severe departure from current law. Currently, an existing elementary district may create a high school district only if the nearest accessible high school is at least 40 miles away, the trip to the nearest high school is 60 minutes or more, and road conditions make travel impractical. Three Montana K-8 districts meet the 1,000-student threshold; Lockwood outside of Billings, East Helena and Hellgate Elementary. None of these districts meet the existing requirements of state law.
There are some important facts for local taxpayers to consider before supporting SB 107 or making a decision to expand a local K-8 district.
Estimates for building a 600-student high school in the Hellgate Elementary K-8 district are $25 million. Building a high school for 800 students accounts for future growth and costs about $50 million. The Hellgate Elementary District has a $30 million taxable base, which means the construction of a new high school could cost Hellgate Elementary taxpayers $280 per year on a $200,000 home.
That costs $239 more per year than a potential bond to support improvements to all of the Missoula high schools, each less than five miles from the Hellgate Elementary District.
There are also annual costs to taxpayers for operating and staffing an additional high school in an area that currently has three urban high schools – each under 1,200 students.
The bill requires a negotiation to determine a division of assets between the current and the expanded high school district. It doesn’t consider the effects on students enrolled in the existing district. What would happen to the schools they attend now? What would happen to programs that keep students engaged and successful?
Further, what would happen to the taxpayers of the current district that will be left to absorb all prior bond and levy debt? There are foundational elements to SB 107 that allow districts like Hellgate Elementary to leave their current district, take assets, receive debt relief and then leave the voters of the original district paying higher taxes as a result of a now smaller tax base.
Impacts to educational programs across the board
This bill poses significant negative educational impacts to students in Missoula. There is risk in creating small high schools that are unable to provide specialized teachers or appropriate learning spaces. The Missoula schools already offer smaller learning communities, career academies, competitive arts, music and drama programs, AP courses, dual credit courses, International Baccalaureate, STEM, special education support services, sign language interpreters, extended resource teachers and therapy support.
If this bill passes, students across Missoula will see their education compromised – funding will be stretched thin and students will pay the price.
If a new high school opens, Hellgate Elementary families who send students to a comprehensive high school in Missoula will be left paying $1,300 per year in out-of-district tuition just to have access to school choice.
Parents and taxpayers want to improve local public education, exercise local control and maintain high-quality options for students and families. This bill would undermine those efforts. Expanding high school districts and constructing new facilities less than five miles from three existing high achieving schools may increase local control, but in reality it only limits the options for local families.
Missoula County Public Schools is proud to lead the state with academic programs and student success. We have accomplished this through the talents of our teachers, our students and our well-rounded academic program.
If you are concerned about your students’ academic future or Montana’s economic future, please contact your legislators to urge them not to support Senate Bill 107.
This opinion is signed by Dr. Joseph Knapp, board chair of Missoula County Public Schools; Alex P. Apostle, superintendent of Missoula County Public Schools; Melanie Charlson, president of the Missoula Education Association and vice president of MEA-MFT; and Sheri Postma, president of the Merged Missoula Classified Employees Organization.