(HELENA) Kael Goldsberry is an eighth-grader at East Valley Middle School in East Helena. Next year, he and the rest of his classmates will travel to Helena for high school.
“They’re in the same district all through eighth grade,” said Karen Goldsberry, Kael’s mother. “We have a graduation at eighth grade and we essentially say goodbye to our children.”
It’s the way things have operated for decades. Now, Goldsberry wants to change that. She’s leading a campaign for the East Helena School District to look at building its own high school, to keep students in the area throughout their school career.
“They’d be 227 all the way through,” said Goldsberry, referring to the telephone prefix for East Helena.
East Helena voters will weigh in next month on whether to move forward with considering a high school. If they say yes, the district will start looking at the costs and benefits. The school board would have up to two years to put together a bond proposal to pay for a new school.
If residents say no – either on this vote or the future bond vote – the high school issue will be put aside for at least five years.
The East Helena vote is possible because Montana lawmakers passed Senate Bill 139 earlier this year. The new law allows elementary school districts with more than 1,000 students to ask voters whether they should build high schools. Currently, only East Helena School District, Lockwood School District near Billings and Hellgate School District near Missoula meet the requirements.
A number of East Helena school leaders and residents testified in favor of SB 139, including Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer, school board chair Scott Walter, and Karen and Kael Goldsberry. Whitmoyer said he’s heard for years that people in the community want the chance to make their own decision on the issue.
“This particular ballot initiative will put that firmly into numbers,” Whitmoyer said. “Our taxpayers, our community, our 5,500 voters will decide whether or not we continue to work in this fashion.”
On Thursday, the school district held a public meeting at East Valley Middle School, to answer residents’ questions about the vote. But leaders weren’t able to address many specifics, like where the school would be located or how much it will cost taxpayers. They said those questions will be answered if voters decide to pursue a high school further.
“There’s no money involved in this election,” said Whitmoyer. “It is simply an election regarding whether or not the community wants us to do research into the viability of a high school here.”
While the district doesn’t have a projection for how much a new high school would cost, there is an upper limit. East Helena voters approved a $12 million bond in May, to build a new elementary school and deal with overcrowding at other schools in the district. That left the district with about $40 million in bonding capacity – the maximum amount they’re able to ask voters for in an upcoming bond.
Whitmoyer said the district should have more than enough bonding capacity to make a high school feasible.
SB 139 passed unanimously through the Senate and 97-3 in the House. However, high school expansion bills had been highly contentious, and failed in two previous legislative sessions. One concern from opponents was that two individual high school districts wouldn’t be able to fund as many programs as a single district.
Supporters say that was addressed in SB 139. New high schools will open with just freshmen, then add another class each year. It would take four years for all the students to transition out of the larger district.
“That’s really going to give both school districts a chance to plan and evaluate programs to see which programs are most definitely needed and to plan for the future,” said Goldsberry.
Some supporters said they are concerned about going forward with the high school issue without knowing what impact it would have on taxpayers. However, if East Helena doesn’t build a high school, they believe the Helena School District could propose a bond of its own. If a high school bond passes in Helena before East Helena expands to a K-12 district, East Helena residents would have to keep paying taxes for the full life of that bond.
“There’s going to be a fiscal note, period,” Goldsberry said. “Would you rather put that money toward your community, or would you rather go over toward Helena with it?”
About 500 students from the East Helena School District currently attend high school in Helena. If the area had its own high school, it would comparable in size to a Class A school, such as Polson High School.
Whitmoyer said the earliest a new school in East Helena could open its doors would be three to four years from now. It would be four more years before the first class graduated.
That means Kael Goldsberry won’t be able to go to an East Helena High School. But he said it would be good for younger kid to have the chance to stay in their community throughout school.
“The teachers know me; the superintendent knows all of us by our names,” he said. “I do think it’d be very good for the other kids.”
The East Helena high school vote will be on a separate ballot from the other city and county elections, but the deadlines are the same. The school district will mail out its ballots on Wednesday. They must be returned by Nov. 7.