School board talks new facility, statewide tests, curriculum updates, bond refinancing

By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

BIG SKY – The Big Sky School Board met Sept. 17, breezing over a proposed new K-4 building, Warren Miller Performing Arts Center updates, booster club fundraising, the Ophir School Council, and school-wide curriculum development. They also discussed statewide testing and an upcoming bond refinance.

Board member Kristin Ramirez presented news from the facilities planning committee, which is researching the feasibility of a proposed new school facility that could house pre-kindergarten through fourth grade. “Community members are on board,” Ramirez said.

At the earliest, Big Sky voters would decide via mail-in ballot in spring 2013 whether to pass a bond to pay for the facility.

In his superintendent’s report, Jerry House noted new adult education programs this year focused on drama and music. “[WMPAC Artistic Director] John Zirkel is going to be a major player for us … helping bring people into the school,” House said.

House also reported that the booster club, which raises money for school athletics, had already raised $27,000 this year and was nearing its initial goal of $35,000. In total, it aims to raise $50,000 this year.

“We should acknowledge as a board what a fantastic job they’ve done,” said board chairman Loren Bough, pointing out the upcoming Carnival, which is the first of its kind.
Profits from the Sept. 22 event will support the booster club, and Bough wanted to encourage the organizers to make the event sustainable. “We don’t want just one great year. We want regular years going forward, because it’s super important for our budget.”

The board reviewed a report comparing Ophir and LPHS state test scores from 2004 – 2012, and also comparing the Big Sky School District to state averages. “You can see the kids have advanced the older they get,” House said. “That [shows] the teaching has improved, the systems have become better, and therefore they test better.”

Part of the Elementary Secondary Education Act, the testing is meant to help the school “raise the benchmark each year,” House said. “We’re working very hard on writing this year, [and in addition] we’re working very hard on math.”

Seeing hard data like this is rare, Bough said, asking, “How do we use [it] to improve and analyze how we’re doing as a teaching staff?” He suggested the board set a target for incremental, achievable change that the teaching staff would agree to.

The Montana Office of Public Instruction has sent a statewide objective for 94.8 percent in reading and 90 percent in math for the 2012/2013 school year.

Board member Ty Moline pointed out that the testing scores didn’t compare that well to other regional schools, like Gallatin Gateway, something that’s not positive when trying to “draw people in.”

Still, enrollment at the school has continued growing. There are currently 243 students enrolled in the Big Sky School District – up from 212 last year. That number is projected to grow to 270 within two years.

“That’s 30 percent growth in 18 months,” Bough said. “That’s the kind of factor we all need to be aware of. These are almost unheard of student growth rates for the state of Montana.”

The Big Sky School District has been Montana’s fastest growing for 10 years.

House also told the board about the new elementary intramural program, which this year will include basketball, and about the Sept. 24 LPHS fall expedition.

The school has asked the Bozeman REI store to donate tents for the annual outdoor expedition program; it’s also looking for sleeping bag donations. This year, the program will take high school students to the Taylor Fork, south of Big Sky. They will camp, cook, and study ecology and the environment, House said after the meeting.

Bridget Ekstrom, a financial expert from DA Davidson, explained different options on the upcoming bond refinance, something that will cost the district up to $12,000, but could ultimately save about $300,000. The board approved the bond refinance, but hasn’t yet ironed out the details.

The board also approved several curriculum updates, an ongoing project the teachers have been working on since last April. There will ultimately be more than 100 new units in 21 disciplines. The new curriculum will align the school with the common core standards, which House has called a “huge advantage” for the district.

Some of the new curriculum has been implemented already, but “it’s a living, breathing product,” Moline said at the previous school board meeting on Aug. 28.

Board members Laura Michel and Matt Jennings were also in attendance, as was business manager Sue Becker and District Clerk Marie Goode. The next Big Sky School Board meeting will be Oct. 17 at 4 p.m.