Lockwood, School District 2 wrangle over upcoming high school legislation

Originally published in the Yellowstone County News print edition on 10/14/16 – by Evelyn Pyburn

LOCKWOOD — The trustees from Lockwood School Billings School District 2 held a joint meeting Monday evening at Lockwood Middle School, to determine whether the two districts can iron out their differences in regard to passing legislation that will lift the moratorium on new high school districts in Montana.

During the last state legislative session, a bill (SB 107) that would have done that, went down to a narrow defeat. Lockwood and East Helena are collaborating on re-introducing the legislation. Hellgate in Missoula was part of the effort two years ago, but will not be this time.

Montana has had a law against the creation of new school districts for decades. In recent years, burgeoning communities like Lockwood have come to the point of believing their children would be better served in schools closer to their own communities. During the legislative debate on the issue, the larger school districts – such as School District 2 – who serve the students of the satellite communities, came out strongly in opposition to the legislation.

The point of the meeting on Monday was to determine what would need to change in the legislation to eliminate SD2’s opposition to the bill, explained Lockwood Board Chairman Tim Sather.

SD2 Superintendent said that even if the legislation were more acceptable to the Billings board, it would probably just not oppose it and take a neutral stance, rather than actually support it.

“We don’t necessarily need your support,” said Lockwood Superintendent Tobin Novasio; eliminating the opposition would be enough. A suggestion was made that SD2 representatives be invited to help write the legislation. Novasio explained that Lockwood currently is partnering with East Helena representatives in drafting a bill, but they would very much like input from SD2.

SD2 board members talked about a need to do a survey to determine support for a Lockwood high school, to gain direction, and gather data for future planning. There was much discussion about who would be surveyed and about what. It would be about a broad range of issues regarding education, said Billings Superintendent Terry Bouck. SD2 might in fact do two surveys.

Lockwood board members said that they could not justify the cost of doing a survey given that the issue of the legislation is not about whether the Lockwood taxpayers supported building a high school, but about gaining the right to make that determination for themselves. Lockwood trustee Joe Borgstrom said that they would be asking Lockwood residents about doing something, which even if they want to do, is illegal.

“I’m all for a survey,” said Borgstrom, “once there is a legal end to it.”

The Lockwood contingency said they already know the opinions of their community. Numerous surveys over the past 10 to 15 years have consistently shown there is strong support from the community to build its own high school. Said Novasio, the Montana Economic Development Authority did a survey as to what the community saw as priorities and building a high school came second only to installing sidewalks and lights for children’s safety. And, that survey came shortly after a student had been struck by a car and killed on a Lockwood street, he said.

It was also added that they didn’t know for sure that there was enough support on the Lockwood School Board to put the matter of a high school on a ballot for Lockwood taxpayers – the board is, however, supportive of legislation to lift the moratorium.

SD2 Board member Susan Layton said she thought that having the results of a survey in hand would be a benefit to Lockwood when talking to state legislators.

“There is a cost associated with getting a bill passed,” Layton said. “Time is money. You would be gathering information about something that is costing money for something you don’t know if your community wants. It is in your best interest to find out what your community wants. It is our responsibility to find out.”

Novasio pointed out that the lobbying effort is being done by volunteers and is not costing the district money.

SD2 board member Janna Hafer made clear the conversation in summation: “You do not want us to fight you in trying to change the law.”

“That’s right,” said Novasio.

Sather asked why Lockwood having their own high school is immediately seen as a negative for SD2. “What is your sticking point?”

The sticking point, according to Greta Besch Moen, chairwoman of the SD2 Board, is the division of assets and how that is handled. As it was written, she said, SB 107 “will hurt our students immediately.”

If that is the primary barrier, then there should be no problem in ironing it out, because there is nothing about the division of assets that Lockwood perceives as being important. Lockwood Superintendent Tobin Novasio said that initially they saw the division of assets as a bargaining chip in trying to retain “open borders” for high schools. The concept of “open borders” – allowing students to attend any high school of their choice – was a reoccurring theme for many of the Lockwood speakers throughout the evening.

Besch Moen said, “It should not be a bargaining chip. It should be a conversation.” She went on to say that open borders makes it too difficult to plan and determine financial needs for each school.

Lockwood Board member Teresa Stroebe started out saying that the whole issue should be about what is best for students – students in Lockwood and in Billings – followed by what is best for the taxpayers. Dividing up the assets is about being fair to taxpayers, she said. As was stated during legislative testimony, she said, Lockwood doesn’t care about assets any more than Moses cared about the pyramids. Once the conversation goes to dividing assets, the issue of what is good for the kids is quickly lost, according to Stroebe.

Lockwood Board member Sue Vinton asked Taylor Brown, the state senator who carried the legislation for Lockwood, if he would explain what surfaced as points of contention in the bill as it made its way through the process.

Brown said that splitting the assets, who decides, and how much time it should take, were issues that were of concern. But since schools like Lockwood were willing to walk away with none of the assets for which their taxpayers had paid over the years, “I don’t think it was much of an issue.”

Bouck asked about existing bonds or indebtedness.

Brown said that the legislation provided that Lockwood would still be “on the hook for those.”

“It’s frustrating,” said Brown, “because we have a bill that was written and had all but one or two votes from passing. Why not look at it and see what has to change? Start with that.”

All the discussion about surveys and “what you are doing here is smokescreen,” said Brown. “All that we need to know is what needs to change to get support. That is the issue.”

Stroebe said that she thought a primary reason that the legislation failed was because the teachers’ unions, MEA/MFT opposed it. She said she didn’t understand their opposition.

Brown later made clear, after having a side conversation with Bouck, that Bouck had pointed out that throughout the evening’s conversation, the two boards were speaking from different assumptions. SD2 Board members did not realize that there was already a draft bill, while the Lockwood Board was thinking, “we have a bill.”

Brown emphasized that “the bottom line” for Lockwood parents and educators is that a significant portion of Lockwood students aren’t making it through high school. The status quo “is not working for them,” he said, and “for Indian kids it is really not working. That is what it is about – the fact that it is not working for our kids.”

Besch Moen said that another aspect of the legislation that was not acceptable was that Billings residents were not able to vote on whether they thought Lockwood should build a high school. They should have a voice, also, since losing some 500 students would have an impact on the Billings taxpayers.

Novasio disagreed that it would have a negative impact for Billings’ students. At worst, he said, it would be “minimal.”

“It is an opportunity to improve what you are doing,” he said. “It will probably be a benefit in fiscal impact. It would be an opportunity to restructure class sizes.”

From the audience, a woman stated, “School District 2 is negating their entire argument, themselves. Losing 500 students, you won’t even feel it.” She went on to explain that SD2 is always talking about student enrollment numbers and their overcrowded conditions, for which they need more space.

“But then you won’t let us solve your problem” by removing some of those students. She added, “Lockwood people feel like their students are being held hostage by SD2.”

It was announced that on Nov. 15, School District 2 will hold a meeting with all their neighboring school districts.

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