by Evelyn Pyburn- Originally published in the Yellowstone County News.
LOCKWOOD — The issue of high school redistricting in Billings School District 2 generated extensive conversation during the meeting of the Lockwood School Board on Tuesday evening.
Conrad Stroebe, a Lockwood resident who for many years represented Lockwood on the SD2 board, brought his concerns to the Lockwood Board of trustees. He was accompanied by his wife, Teresa, who also served in that position at one time and is a former member of the Lockwood School board.
Conrad informed the board that as of Tuesday morning, there was no representation from Lockwood on the team of volunteers that SD2’s professional consultant, Matthew Cropper, and SD2 Superintendent Terry Bouck had assembled.
Cropper said that they had received no applicants from Lockwood and rejected Stroebe serving because he has an agenda that Cropper said has no place in an exercise aimed at serving ”the needs of every student as a whole and not just the area they live.” However, by day’s end on Tuesday, Cropper reported having asked former Lockwood School Board member Jen Wagoner to serve on the committee which will provide input in the process.
In an email he sent to SD2 officials, Cropper said, “It’s too bad it took this long to get someone on board, but in the end, it’s a better group.”
The action came after Stroebe appealed in an email to Cropper and Bouck, “Please let our community participate! Please let all the feeder school communities participate! Lockwood has 10 percent of the high school kids attending two of the three Billings high schools — and no representation on the Cropper committee. Our kids and their families are forced to spend an extra hour a day commuting, often giving up participation in activities. Billings Public Schools spends $6 million in transportation . . . that could be saved with true neighborhood walkable, bikeable schools. ($1,700 for each of the 3,500 bused kids — and that implies another $20+ million private transportation [costs] for the other 13,000 students.)”
Stroebe asked for more than one Lockwood representative.
“I am not trying to block your ‘productivity’ — I just want the feeder school kids to have the same amount of representation as the kids in the Billings elementary trustee sub-districts. At 28 members for seven Billings elementary subdistricts, that is four members from each, thus eight from the two feeder sub-districts… For you to imply that global input is more valuable than local input is just wrong,” wrote Stroebe.
Cropper responded, “The study team has been selected so that we have members who live throughout the district. The purpose of this is not so they can protect or represent their community, but to give the team input relative to their general area. They will provide invaluable input on factors like where students can/do walk to school, which roads have heavy traffic at rush hour, and other factors that relate to our redistricting criteria.”
He pointed out that the public can submit input through other means as well as having representation on the committee, and that the meetings are open to the public.
Teresa Stroebe underscored her uncertainty about the process and how important any public input was going to be, because two preliminary redistricting plans that were posted briefly on the Billings Public School website had all Lockwood students attending Skyview, instead of being able to choose, as they currently do, which high school they attend. She said that the proposed plans were quickly taken down, but she could show anyone who wished a copy of the maps.
Teresa added that SD2 School Board has the final decision.
“They don’t have to listen to the community,” she said, “and they often don’t.”
Confidence in Cropper’s company, Cropper GIS Consulting, LLC, was further shaken by the fact that a report they did for Helena had all of Billings’ feeder schools, including Lockwood, going to the two Helena high schools. That’s the problem with “cookie-cutter” approaches from national companies, she said: they don’t know the communities and there are concerns about accuracy. She expressed her disappointment that the school district had ignored local expertise that was available to do the job.
Continued discussion among all Lockwood board members, administrators and the audience underscored a deep concern about the dropout rate of Lockwood students attending SD2 high schools and the reason they view the redistricting project as important.
For every 100 students that Lockwood sends to SD2 high schools, 23 will not graduate. Lockwood Superintendent Tobin Novasio said that those numbers are based upon SD2’s own data. In fact, it was noted several times that SD2 has one of the highest dropout rates in the state, especially among Native American students.
“There is just no reason for that,” said Conrad.
Billings SD2 is claiming that 200 students drop out annually, but Conrad said the real number is closer to 500. The only explanation for the difference that he can figure, said Conrad, is that they are not including the dropouts that come into the district from the feeder schools, adding he would like to know what strategy SD2 has to address that problem.
Conrad said that Cropper did an earlier study for SD2 in which he concluded that the district will not soon need another high school.
“His assumption was that if you have a 25 percent dropout rate you won’t need another high school,” said Stroebe, “That is just a heart-breaking reason.”
Novasio commented that he doesn’t know that Lockwood has the solution in proposing another high school for Lockwood, but he does know that the current situation is broken and something has to be done. Novasio was referring to past Lockwood efforts to change state law so that Lockwood residents could consider the issue of whether they want to build their own high school. While their efforts have so far failed, they plan to continue to pursue the legislation.
But, said Novasio, “We are not saying we want to build a high school. We are saying we need a high school in Lockwood. School District 2 could build it if they wanted to.”
That topic will be further explored in a joint meeting of the Lockwood School Board and the Billings School Board at noon Thursday, Sept. 8 at the Lincoln Center. It is open to the public.
Click here to view documents for redistricting on the School District 2 website.