The banner headline of Sunday’s Great Falls Tribune made it clear: Great Falls High needs $58 million in renovations to keep the building up to code and handle projected enrollment–and that’s just one of Great Falls Public Schools’ two dozen operational buildings (abandoned buildings aren’t included). Improving safety, technology and accessibility to GFPS’ existing buildings adds another $30 million to the taxpayer’s tab. Without building fund allotments, we spend over $6,000 per student for the 10,500 students enrolled in our K-12 public education system.
Building additions, shuffling structures, or constructing entire new schools could cost up to $150 million, according to the Tribune. Superintendent Tammy Lacey said the board is “not leaning toward anything at this point.” Lacey does think we need to stop studying and start acting on the problem, perhaps floating a bond issue. Which buildings should be closed? Which buildings should be renovated? Which should be converted to other uses or sold?
City Commissioner Bob Kelly commended the board for “thinking outside the box” when it comes to school buildings. In fact, we are crawling all over the box without asking those people, who spend the majority of their formative years inside. Someone needs to open the box and ask the students what they think is best.
Don’t tell me they’re too young to know. A group of second graders might have a better grasp on human needs than a committee of vested adults. Do we need to keep thirty students in desks, facing a teacher until the bell rings, when the subject changes from history to math? Real life in the 21st century looks nothing like this. Students know the system is bogus. They play along because they think they have no choice.
A crisis is a choice. It’s an opportunity for innovation. Our district’s anticipated high school enrollment increase could be defused by progressive education programs: independent studies, apprenticeship, distance learning, online courses, volunteering, and community-as-laboratory all come to mind. These innovations upset everyone with skin in the game–except the students, who would probably be stoked at more hands-on options.
Do we want one of the most beautiful buildings in Great Falls to be morphed by a nip inside here and a tuck outside there, into (forgive me) an architectural Joan Rivers? What kind of innovative use can we find for Great Falls High’s original building? Sad as it may be, if we can’t find a use or a buyer, our precious students are more important than any building…
We need our sons and daughters to be safe, but we are prioritizing bricks and mortar before brains and moxie. The decision tree begins with school administrators, then local and state governments, taxpayers, contractors, unions, teachers, and parents. The true hierarchy of education should be STUDENT FIRST, parent next, then teacher. Taxpayers, administrators and unions, legislators and contractors should follow the will of the first three. Sure, some participants in every level don’t care. Ask fourth graders what’s important to them. Talk with a ninth grader and see how she communicates and relates to the world. Graduating seniors should sit down with school board members, while their high school years are fresh in their minds.
Contact a cross-section of GFHS grads, five years and ten years out of high school, ask them what’s been valuable, what could have helped them in their adult lives, and what was a waste of time. I’ll bet we would be talking about building problems in an entirely more innovative way.
We don’t want to float a bond issue to build our trustee’s vision of what they think 21st century buildings should look like. If we do that–much sooner than we want–we’ll be shuffling buildings and screaming for funding again. Without being condescending, we need to trust the product of the education we are providing: has anyone asked the students?