UPDATE: 8:35 P.M. – The East Helena School Board voted unanimously Monday to place the $29.5 million bond on the May 8 ballot.
Despite community support, Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer remains concerned about how voters may react.
“I am not all that confident… Anytime something costs [money], it needs to be decided by people who pay the bill,” Whitmoyer said after Monday’s vote.
(EAST HELENA) The East Helena school board will decide Monday whether to ask voters to weigh in on a bond issue that would pay for a high school of their own.
During their regular monthly meeting, trustees will officially vote on whether to place a nearly $30 million bond on the ballot for May 8.
In November, almost 68 percent of district voters approved a ballot measure calling for administrators to do more research into the feasibility of building a high school. SMA Architects of Helena recently completed an initial financial analysis on the proposed project.
“We’re looking at a price tag of $29.5 million to ask of the taxpayers, to accomplish everything that’s needed to develop a great educational program for the kids of East Helena,” said Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer.
The $29.5 million in the bond would pay for the purchase of land and for construction costs of the new school. Leaders estimate the cost of the bond will be about $34.21 per month for the owner of a $200,000 home.
Whitmoyer said a small part of that cost might be offset by changes in the taxes that pay for a high school’s day-to-day operations. Currently homeowners in the East Helena School District pay some taxes to the Helena School District, to support Helena and Capital High School. If the East Helena district creates a high school, those taxes would eventually be redirected to that school.
Whitmoyer said the district’s economic analysis projects those taxes might decrease if East Helena operates its own high school, since East Helena schools currently operate on less than the maximum tax levy allowed by law. Leaders estimate that change could save the owner of a $200,000 home $3.75 per month.
District leaders still have not chosen a location for a possible new high school.
“We can’t contract with anyone to buy property when we don’t even know if the community is going to support this,” said Whitmoyer.
He said the district is currently looking at two potential properties, each around 50 acres. He said the final price tag should not change depending on which one they eventually choose.
If the district is unable to secure either new property, Whitmoyer said the high school could also be built at Dartman Field, near where the new Prickly Pear Elementary School is under construction.
The high school vote is made possible by a law approved by the Montana Legislature last year. It allows elementary school district with more than 1,000 students to expand into K-12 districts, if residents agree. East Helena is one of two districts where voters may vote on the issue this spring, along with Lockwood School District near Billings.
If East Helena voters approve a bond for a new high school, Whitmoyer said construction could start as soon as this fall, and the work could be completed in time for the 2020 school year.
“We see a lot of opportunity here to put this bond together rather quickly if it were to pass on May 8,” he said.
New students would start at the high school one grade level at a time, over four years. The first class might graduate in 2024.
If voters reject the bond, the school board will not be allowed to propose a high school again for at least five years. On a practical level, Whitmoyer said the issue would likely be put aside for much longer, since he expects the Helena School District to propose a bond of its own to rebuild or renovate Helena and Capital High. If a Helena high school bond passes before East Helena votes to expand into a K-12 district, East Helena voters will still be responsible for payments on that bond for its 20-year life – even if they later decide to create a high school.
In the end, the decision on whether to create an East Helena high school will fall to residents in the district.
“The beautiful thing is, the community will come out and they will decide this,” Whitmoyer said. “This is not going to be a school board decision; this is not going to be a decision by anybody other than our community, about what they want for their kids.”
Reporting by Jonathon Ambarian and Jacob Fuhrer for MTN News