Day 40- Helena’s Central School Problem

Our school bond in Helena for at least the past 5 years have been working towards an eventual goal of fixing our overcrowded, old, decaying schools in Helena. The 1st report came out not long after I moved to Helena, which recommended the closing Central school (and others) and to build bigger schools that could house more students and allow for a better allocation of services.

(Right now, counselors, PE Teachers, Nurses are all split between the smaller neighbor hood schools.- Need to see a nurse, sorry she is at her other school right now, need to see your counselor because your dad hit you, sorry, she is at her other school right now)

The 1st bond was essentially dead on arrival after several big players in the community came out against it, including the governor and the downtown business association. The bond eventually failed and put everyone back the drawing table. A new superintendent later, the board is back at it again, with an improved plan that would rebuild 3 schools, including Central now, and improve the others.


Part of the plan that is controversial, is the idea to rebuild Central School. Because of its historic value, being the 1st public school in Montana, people have been up in arms over it. But on the other hand, it is over 100 years old, been deemed structurally unsafe, and has been sitting vacant and rotting for 3 years. The proposed plan to rebuild it plans to keep the historic feel and look to the building, while also providing classrooms and areas that provide access to today’s needs and students. The opposition has tried to use the historical society to help them block it, and then the city council who had to approve the demolition permit, and now that all that has failed, a couple has filed a lawsuit.

An IR Article today really summed up my feelings regarding this whole Central School Issue.

Why did a school teacher from Roundup, Montana file a lawsuit to stop the demolition of Central School here in Helena? How do you go from teaching children to denying children a decent place in which to learn?

It doesn’t seem to matter that the school board held more than 100 community meetings over several years to develop this community consensus bond proposal.

The answer for Alan Nicholson is that the decision of the overwhelming majority of the elected school board and the clear majority of the elected Helena City Commission is not what he wants. So he sues.


He can’t stop the bond election, so he does the next best thing, trying to gum up the works to create a new Central School by asking the courts to grant an injunction on the demolition.

Of course, when City of Helena decisions benefit Mr. Nicholson he is more agreeable. The November 14, 2004, article in the Independent Record details the city’s efforts to get Mr. Nicholson an $880,000 TIF loan to help him build the Great Northern Center. And then later he asks the city to forgive loan payments until 2020.

Getting a TIF loan instead of a grant was bending over backwards to help this one developer give us new constructions at the Great Northern Center. Yes, new constructions. No rehabilitation at the Great Northern. No construction to look as though the buildings were built at or near the turn of the previous century.

So why is Mr. Nicholson determined to rehabilitate a school that was built in two sections in 1914 and 1921? This is a three-level school that can only meet current construction codes by wrapping each column of rubble stone in steel. We end up with small, not modern size classrooms. We spend millions of taxpayer dollars to be able to say, “See, we saved that building.” We did not save it for the kids. We saved it for Mr. Nicholson.

We all know that anyone can sue anyone in these United States. But if you must sue to try to get your way in the face of democratic votes by the School Board and the City of Helena Commission, how supportive are you of our nation, its constitution or your community?

What lessons do you want to teach the children of this community? Think about what you are doing, Mr. Nicholson. Think about the children. They deserve new buildings, just like the Great Northern.


So while I understand that this is another tax burden for people in this community and that is hard to swallow, the need is there and it’s not going away. So yes, this will cost me an extra $120 a year, but I think its worth it to have schools where kids are safe, have the technology to learn in the ever-changing world, and don’t have to spend hours on a bus.

Selfishly, it also helps me out because one of the proposed new schools in Jim Darcy, which is the school in my area, and currently it was built for 270 students, now houses over 400 and additionally students in our neighborhood are being bussed all the way into town because there isn’t room for them in the school.


To Learn More about the Bond

A thread of articles about Montana’s school infrastructure problem



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