Lockwood Education Committee Unites for SD2 redistricting push

by Evelyn Pyburn-Originally published in the print edition of the Yellowstone County News on March 18, 2016.  

LOCKWOOD — The issue of redistricting for the high schools in School District 2 (SD2) will be settled by the SD2 board on Monday, March 21 at 5:30 pm. at the Lincoln Center in Billings. the Lockwood Education Committee urged Lockwood citizens to attend the meeting and to wear red so that board members recognize the contingency and understand the level of interest there is in the issue in Lockwood.

At a meeting last Thursday evening, the Lockwood Education Committee presented information regarding the issue of redistricting and also the strategy to be pursued in attempting, for another time, to get legislation passed that will allow Lockwood to consider whether it wants to build their own high school.

The Lockwood Education Committee, chaired by Chad Hanson, was established several years ago during a community assessment meeting organized by MEDA (Montana Economic Development Agency). Hanson and Shawn Green volunteered, along with others, to be members of the committee. Hanson said the committee has not been very active but with emerging education issues that will have long-term impacts on Lockwood, the group has been revitalized. A number of about 30 people in attendance at the meeting on Thursday volunteered to join the group.

After holding six meetings and analyzing eight options a 29-member redistricting committee appointed by SD2 has submitted a recommendation—called Plan B-1 — to its board that will eliminate choice for Lockwood students, and split the community as to which high school students will attend. In the proposal, 75 percent of the neighborhoods in Lockwood will lie in a district that will be directed to Skyview High School, some will go to Senior High School. Highway 87 is the dividing line in Lockwood; those east of the highway will attend Senior High and those west will go to Skyview.

The plan received almost unanimous approval by the redistricting committee, which also put forward an alternative – Plan A – to the SD2 board, which has authority to ultimately choose any plan it would like. Plan A also eliminates choice for Lockwood, an option the community has had for many years, and for which the community strongly advocated.

SD2 put forth a transition plan that will grandfather continued attendance, through 2020, to Senior High for families who have students already attending there. After the 2017-18 school year, however, the families will have to arrange their own transportation to the school because SD2 will no longer run a bus. Buses will run as normal next year.

Gordon Klasna who also happens to be a principal at Lockwood, is Lockwood’s representative for high school. He said that he walks a thin line trying to separate his two roles but he assumed the position because no one else wanted to serve in it. Klasna told the education committee that everyone who has ever talked to him in Lockwood wants choice about which high school their children attend.

In other conversation there were concerns expressed that forcing students to go to Skyview will further alienate them from a sense of belonging and reduce opportunity to participate – issues which have been identified as likely contributors to the high dropout rate experienced by Lockwood students.

Others said that SD2 was setting up the situation to facilitate a future decision to build a new high school further west in Billings – and they had been told that in no way will SD2 ever build a high school in Lockwood.

Lockwood Superintendent Tobin Novasio said that that is perhaps one good thing to have happened during the redistricting process – it has highlighted the problems that Lockwood faces and has persuaded many people throughout the Billings and Lockwood communities that Lockwood does need its own high school. Novasio commented about SD2, “They built a high school in 1985 in a horrible location and our kids are paying the price for it.”

While the issue of building a high school in Lockwood has long been at the top of priorities in any community survey, as other community issues have been resolved and as evidence has mounted as to the need, more and more Lockwood residents have become supportive of a high school for Lockwood. It was the second item on the Education Committee’s agenda during their meeting.

Lockwood School Board Member Tim Sather was introduced as someone whose opinion on the matter over the past few years has turned 180 degrees. Sather said, in speaking as a Lockwood parent and not as a member of the school board, that his kids had had good experience attending Senior High School and he thought attending SD2 high schools was very acceptable. The problem of a high non-completion rate among Lockwood students and the realization that each year, typically, fewer than five Lockwood students have an opportunity – primarily because of a lack of transportation – to participate in any extra curricula activities of their choice gradually brought Sather to change his position.

Hanson pointed out to the group that a proposed mill levy for the high school district in SD2 is significant enough that if Lockwood taxpayers become committed to helping pay it off, it would probably nullify any opportunity for the community to pursue the option of their own high school. “I won’t tell you how to vote on that,” said Hanson, to which there was a round of laughter in the room.

During the past two legislative sessions, Lockwood, along with East Helena and Missoula Hellgate, have tried to get passed a bill that would lift, for the three schools, a moratorium on the creation of additional high school districts in the state. It was put into place in 1993 as a means for the state to save money, since the state is required to fund all high schools in the state with a quarter million dollars, each year.

As they move forward to the next state legislature, explained Novasio, Missoula will not be part of the issue because Missoula passed a large high school bond, which eliminates the option for them. That may help the argument before the state legislature, said Novasio, because East Helena and Lockwood are obviously separate communities with large high school age populations. Lockwood has enough high school students to qualify as a Class A high school. The school district, in terms of numbers, to which Lockwood is most similar, said Novasio, is Polson.

The greatest opposition the legislation has had in the past according to Lockwood’s state representatives who carried the bill, Sen. Taylor Brown and Rep. Tom Richmond – both of whom were at the meeting – is the teachers’ union. “They want larger bargaining units,” explained Brown, who emphasized that the teachers’ union is a very powerful influence in the state. He also noted that the issue was not presented to the union membership .

The new legislation will remove some of the issues that were used by opponents as reasons to oppose it. Novasio explained that as taxpayers, Lockwood owns some of the assets of SD2 High School District. Issues about how to divide those assets were used as a red herring to oppose the legislation by the administration of the larger schools, including SD2. “We are willing to walk away from those assets,” said Novasio, and that will be reflected in the new legislation.

There are other points of leverage that can be used in the political struggle in Helena, said the legislation’s proponents including opening it up to lift the moratorium statewide and not just for the two communities of Lockwood and East Helena. That could change the positions of legislators in other areas of the state.

Also, it was noted, the moratorium has never been challenged in court, and there are those who believe it is unconstitutional. Proponents are consulting with legal advisors regarding the prospect of challenging it in court if that becomes necessary.

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