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Billings elementary school set to close, two new charter high schools will move in

Washington School
Posted at 7:01 AM, Jan 24, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-24 11:02:23-05

BILLINGS — A Billings elementary school is set to close at the end of the school year and two new charter high schools will move in, riding a wave of new funding from the state.

Washington Elementary School in Billings will turn into the Washington Innovation Center, according to Billings School District 2 Superintendent Dr. Erwin Garcia, as two of the district's three new charter high schools will take over the building.

The school board voted 6-1 Monday night to close Washington Elementary and more than 100 current students will be dispersed to three other nearby elementary schools; Broadwater, Newman, and Miles. Currently, there are 211 students enrolled in Washington School, but the re-districting numbers do not include fifth graders who will be moving on to middle school next year.

Garcia recommended the action of closing the school to the board as a way to solve an elementary school budget problem within the district.

"Currently the elementary district has a $3.5 million deficit," Garcia said. "On top of that, we anticipate losing all the COVID money that we had for the past three, four years. And we have 28 positions that are currently ESSER funded. That's about $2 million added to the $3.5 million. So we have to address this problem. I'm refusing to continue being broke.”

Garcia says Washington's low student population makes it more expensive to operate than other schools in the district and that closing it will save the district $2.5 million.

But the school will not stay empty. The two proposed charter schools taking over the building include the early college high school and the Opportunity School, an alternative high school.

“The state is providing every single charter school that we got approved with base funding," Garcia said. "Base funding runs between $250,000 to $300,000 and that's for five years. So we will be irresponsible if we wouldn't look for opportunities to get these programs funded when the state is already giving us the base funding.”

Parents of Washington School students have expressed their dismay at the closure. Dannielle Paisley is the mother of a first-grade student and as a foster parent has had other students attend the school as well.

"We love Washington School. I've always had a great experience with them," Paisley said. "I think they have a lot of really great support services for our higher needs kids, which happened to be foster kids. We have always had a really good experience with them."

Washington School is a Title 1 school, meaning it receives federal funding to serve low-income students. Paisley says families from around the district send their students to the school to receive more direct services in special education and independent education plans.

“One of the big things that came out of the meeting in Washington when this was sprung on these families is that you want to disperse them to these other schools that are nearing capacity anyway. But a lot of these families came from those other schools because of the services offered at Washington that the other schools just don't have the ability to offer," Paisley said. "So they're super unhappy with that decision, and I think it's going to have greater impacts past just this next year.”

Another point concerning Paisley, who started a petition to keep the school open, is that the re-districting of students to other schools will push already-full classrooms to even higher numbers, something Garcia disputes.

“We already counted all of the students that will eventually go to the three elementary schools, and we don't have to have exceed the accreditation numbers set by the state," Garcia said. "There's not such thing as a kindergarten classroom with 30 or 40 kids. That doesn't happen in Billings, although that's a myth that is well stated in social media and through other sources.”

The timeline now is to close the elementary school and convert it to the Washington Innovation Center after this school year. The district says there is no discussion of closing other schools.

Paisley says she will continue her fight to keep the school open.

“I would hope that people will watch the school board more. They do livestream these meetings and I think it's important as a community that we're staying on top of it and what they're talking about and that we're holding them accountable.”