Dear Helena Public Schools Families,
This week, our district lost a dedicated public servant and advocate for public education.
Helena Public Schools Trustee Lois Fitzpatrick died Friday, March 10. Lois was a cancer survivor, who last fought the disease more than two decades ago. She received news that her cancer had returned the same day she was sworn in as a new school board member late last spring.
But Lois knew her community needed her. Even as her disease progressed, she participated online in almost every board meeting during her nearly one year of service, and could be relied on to contribute astute questions and comments. A retired librarian and professor emeritus at Carroll College as well as a Helena Public Schools parent, Trustee Fitzpatrick was a supporter of public education whose leadership will be sorely missed. Our condolences go out to her husband of nearly 40 years, Bill, and their family, which includes two daughters, five grandchildren and another grandchild on the way.
As we mourn her loss, we can also find strength and hope in Lois’ story. Her dedication and tenacity are inspiration for all of us as we work through thick and thin to serve our community’s children.
As we continue to move through our short-term and long-term steps to address the district’s General Fund budget shortfall, I’ll continue to provide regular updates in these Friday letters.
In recent weeks, we’ve been waiting for the final numbers that help determine the level of staffing the district can support for the 2023-24 school year. These include the inflationary increases in the state education funding bill (signed into law by the Governor at Smith Elementary March 2), our district’s ANB numbers, which determine our level of state funding per student, and the number of staff retiring, resigning or returning from leaves of absence.
With accurate numbers now in hand, we’re able to notify all non-tenured school staff regarding their status for next year. These adjustments are not easy, nor are they what anyone wanted. But they are necessary for the long-term fiscal health of our schools. While we cannot avoid some reduction in staff, I want to keep these losses to a minimum. My overarching goal is to ensure that we continue to have the staffing we need to fully support student learning and growth.
While Helena Public Schools set aside savings to cushion the impacts of the budget shortfall for the 2023-24 school year, deeper cuts will be necessary for 2024-25. These decisions will affect a wide swath of our school community and beyond, which is why I want a full cross-section of stakeholders to be represented in the decision-making process.
To ensure that this process is open and fair, the district is forming a Budget Consensus Committee that will be charged with providing recommendations to assist with creating a balanced budget for the 2024-25 school year. The committee will consist of trustees, parents, community members, certified and classified staff, students, building and central office administration, and community and business leaders.
Membership will be finalized after Spring Break, and I will continue to provide regular updates as we move toward a sound financial outlook for Helena Public Schools.
I encourage Helena voters to participate in the upcoming spring school election, which will include ballot items for general fund mill levies.
Why are these levies on the ballot? School districts cannot keep up with inflation and other cost increases by raising prices or increasing sales. Public schools are instead supported by three main funding streams – federal funding, state funding and community funding through local mill levies on property taxes.
Mill levies are the mechanism by which communities provide ongoing, direct support to their local school districts. State law dictates how much a school district can seek from mill levies in each election to adjust for changing funding needs, putting sideboards on the process to safeguard taxpayers.
Helena Public Schools Trustees will finalize the official ballot language at their regular work session next week, and I’ll share details in next Friday’s update. Ballots will be mailed in mid-April and must be returned to the Lewis & Clark County Elections Office by May 2.
Meanwhile, as districts across Montana take steps to address their budget shortfalls, we’re working with the Montana School Boards Association, School Administrators of Montana, the Montana Quality Education Coalition, the Montana Rural Education Association, and the AA Superintendents to address the ongoing inadequacy of funding for public education.
I would again encourage you to review our Citizens Guide to the Helena Public Schools Budget, which is an excellent primer on school funding.
While budget news will continue to be front and center this spring, let’s never lose our focus on the amazing accomplishments of our students and staff. I hope you enjoy the following student and staff accolades. As educators, as parents and as administrators, these accomplishments are what our work is all about.
Rex Weltz, Superintendent
Helena Public Schools
Congratulations to Broadwater Elementary Librarian Marla Unruh, who has received the new Alma Smith Jacobs Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Award from the Montana Library Association. The award is named for the groundbreaking Great Falls librarian who, in 1973, became the first woman and the first African American to serve as Montana’s State Librarian.
Ms. Unruh reports that “equity, diversity, and inclusion are a huge theme in all I try to do … It is so important to allow others to be who they are and to treat them with kindness and respect.”
We couldn’t agree more. Thank you, Ms. Unruh, for all you do to bring the power of literature to all students.
Last week, we honored our teachers and students recognized as 2023 Helena Education Foundation Distinguished Educators. Each year, the Helena Education Foundation honors high school seniors who have made exemplary personal and academic accomplishments with its Distinguished Student awards. The students, in turn, nominate Distinguished Educators who have made a positive impact on their school careers.
HEF and its Distinguished Students made surprise visits to their teacher honorees last week and we’re proud to share the full list of recipients today. You can find their stories on HEF’s Facebook page.
Congratulations to our Helena Public Schools Science Olympiad teams on their success at the State Science Olympiad in Bozeman, March 8.
Helena High School placed fourth overall and the following teams earned Gold Medals.
Forestry: Robert Stimpson and Paul Reeves
Rocks and Minerals: Annika Nehring and Emily McAnally
Anatomy: Paisely Karlin and Wyatt Gant
Capital High placed second overall with the following results:
Second place in anatomy and physiology: Ellie Mercer, Lynsey Read
Second place in cell virology: Anna Gates, Lynsey Read
Second place in astronomy: Killian Humbert, Rowan Humbert
Second place in scrambler: Ashton Shipley, Isaac Urban
Third place in chemistry lab: Selin Birgul, Anna Gates
Third place in rocks and minerals: Fiona Kuntz, Hailey Sprankle
I’m pleased to share that Capital High School Science Teacher Sarah Urban has been selected as a Montana state-level finalist in the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching Program. Sarah is one of six math and science teachers selected statewide for this prestigious award, and is now a candidate for the state Presidential Award.
Congratulations, Ms. Urban, and thank you for representing our Helena Public Schools with this state-level award!
Congratulations to Charlotte, of Central Elementary School, who is the Grand Champion of the “2023 Sodexo Future Chef’s Challenge.” Charlotte faced off with finalists from elementary schools across the district in the kitchen at Capital High School last weekend.
Her “Tortilla De Patatas,” a simple, flavorful dish featuring Yukon Gold potatoes was most pleasing the judges’ palates. The contest, hosted by Helena Public Schools’ food services contractor, Sodexo, challenged elementary school students to reimagine their favorite fruit or vegetable by creating an original side dish. The contestants had an hour and a half to prepare and plate their culinary creations before a public tasting session.
Check out photos of the even and download a cookbook of the finalist recipes at 2023 Sodexo Future Chefs Challenge Recipe Book
Thank you to all of our student volunteers who worked to make Capital High School’s “Choose to Include” week a success. Each school day last week, students celebrated a theme to highlight the importance of letting everyone know they belong, from “Dress Like a Teacher” day to “BBQ Dads and Soccer Moms.” Beyond the wacky fun, the activities were designed to bring all students together. Events included Goal Ball, a game for the visually impaired that requires silence, and a Unified Art Class activity that brought together students of all abilities.
Thank you to Ellie Fjeseth and Heidi Foreman for their work to bring this week of unity to all.
Congratulations to HHS Student Robert Stimpson, whose research on “learning bias” received the American Psychological Association Award at the Montana Tech Regional Science Fair March 2. Robert’s submission received a blue ribbon in the first round of judging and advanced to the second round, for which he received a silver medal as well as the APAA award. Well done, Robert!
Helena Public Schools is proud to announce that five of our high school seniors have received Youth Serve Montana Scholarships for their hours of volunteer service to their communities. They are among 100 students statewide to receive the scholarships, which are awarded annually by the Governor’s Office of Community Service (ServeMontana), Reach Higher Montana, and Montana Campus Compact (MTCC).
This scholarship is offered in two awards, $1,000 for 50-99 hours of service and $1,500 for 100+ hours of service to attend a Montana Campus Compact member institution next fall.
The Youth Serve Montana Scholarship was created to promote volunteerism among high school students. Funds are available through support from Montana Campus Compact, a network of Montana campuses committed to community service; Reach Higher Montana, a nonprofit dedicated to helping students pursue and fund post-secondary education; and the Governor’s Office of Community Service, the state agency tasked with expanding and promoting community service in Montana. The Governor’s Office of Community Service administers the scholarship funds.
Congratulations to the following student volunteers!
$1,000 Youth Serve Montana Scholarship Recipient (served 50-99 hours)
Mikayla Hall, Capital High
$1,500 Youth Serve Montana Scholarship Recipient (served 100 or more hours)
RaeAnn Loewen, Capital High
Brendan Miller, Capital High
Kalley May, Helena High
Alexis Reed, Helena High