Friday Letter to Staff from Rex | May 19, 2023

May 19, 2023

Dear Helena Public Schools Staff,

We’re almost at the finish line of the sometimes challenging, sometimes chaotic and always rewarding sprint that is the last few weeks of the school year. I hope those of you who work in our elementary schools got a chance to give a senior a high-five during Thursday morning’s Grad Walk.

Many of you will see familiar faces in this video of our 2023 grads as they visit their home schools, reliving the precious memories they built in these special places. If you haven’t yet had a chance, I also encourage you to take a look at the heartfelt messages sent by students and their families during Teacher Appreciation Week.

I have updates to share on several areas of district business.

Consensus Committee convenes

This week, the Budget Recommendation Consensus Committee assembled for its first meeting. The ad hoc committee consists of 40 representatives of district stakeholder groups. Some committee members were selected after stepping forward to volunteer, while others were invited because of their roles with a Parent Teacher Organization, the Helena Education Association or other groups.

The district has engaged three highly respected individuals in the state and local education community to lead the Consensus Committee.

Dr. Rob Watson is a former science teacher who has served as superintendent of the Missoula and Bozeman School Districts. He is currently Executive Director of School Administrators of Montana (SAM).

Assistant Facilitators are Assistant Superintendent Josh McKay and Melissa Romano. Melissa is a long-time Helena Public Schools educator and state representative for House District 81. She has advocated for public education at the local, state and national level.

Rob, Josh and Melissa will facilitate the committee using a proven consensus-building process that was developed around one of the world’s most contentious and intractable issues – water rights.

The process was developed by the late Bob Chadwick, an Oregon forester who became an internationally recognized expert on conflict resolution. Chadwick’s success with resolving water rights conflicts in Oregon’s Klamath River Basin quickly drew the attention of other entities navigating contentious issues – local governments, hospitals, corporations and many others.

And that’s how Helena Public Schools became part of Chadwick’s story more than two decades ago.

In 2002, then-HPS Superintendent Dr. Bruce Messinger engaged Chadwick to lead teacher contract negotiations. The resulting two-year contract drew the attention of districts across the state and nation who were interested in its innovative solutions around teacher salary structures and professional development. The consensus-building process was thus introduced to the public education sphere, where it is still widely used today. Chadwick’s methods, which begin with building trust, are detailed in his book “Finding New Ground: Beyond Conflict to Consensus.”

Rob has extensive experience guiding districts through the consensus-building process, most recently with the Missoula County Public Schools. Rob will not be paid for his work with Helena Public Schools, however the district will make a donation to SAM in appreciation of his time.

At the committee’s first meeting yesterday, participants were guided through a grounding process that introduced members to the consensus-building framework. The group will meet once in June and once in August and will assemble twice monthly thereafter, with the goal of presenting budget recommendations before the Board of Trustees by late winter 2024.

I would like to share a point that Rob emphasized in his presentation to the Board of Trustees earlier this week: The consensus-building process will not start with pre-conceived answers to the district’s financial challenges. “I don’t have the answers,” Rob told Trustees. “What I do have is the process.”

I look forward to sharing continued updates as this collaborative process gets underway.

2023 Legislative Session recap

With the 2023 Legislative Session now in the rear-view mirror, I’d like to share a recap of the district’s work alongside statewide education organizations to support the interests of our public schools.

Our administrative team met twice a week throughout the session, every Monday and Thursday, with our advocacy partners. These included School Administrators of Montana; Montana School Boards Association; Montana Rural Education Association; Montana Association of Business Officials and the Montana Quality Education Coalition, which together form the Coalition of Advocates for Montana’s Public Schools.

HPS administrators responded to numerous calls to action by our advocacy partners over the course of the session to advocate for favorable bills and to fight those detrimental to public education. These included the following:

  • HB 352, Targeted Intervention for Improved Literacy (signed)
    HB 352, which now signed into law by the governor, provides funding for three early literacy targeted intervention programs, beginning for children aged 4. The goal is to provide parents with voluntary early literacy options for their children, with the aim of increasing the number of students who are reading proficiently by the end of third grade. Sponsored by Rep. Brad Barker, R-Roberts.
  • HB 332, Health Trust (pending)
    This last major piece of MTSBA’s 2023 Session platform, is not yet signed by the governor and hangs in the balance. HB 332 would establish a statewide school health insurance trust as an option for districts seeking to manage health insurance costs. Sponsored by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton.

In addition, administration authorized leaves of absence for employees to visit the Capitol to testify in support or opposition of bills. We’re grateful to all who worked alongside us this session to advocate for the interests of Montana’s public schools.

Looking to 2023-24

Our district administrative team visited each of your campuses this school year to hear from you about what is working for staff and students and where we can improve.

I want to share takeaways that we’re carrying into the 2023-24 school year, based on your feedback. The overarching concerns we heard fell into four categories: Facilities needs, technology issues, student mental health support and managing tasks associated with continuous improvement initiatives such as PAX, the Instructional Framework and Standards Based Grading.

The first category, facilities, is being addressed through the Master Facilities Planning process now underway. While the district will continue to have unmet facilities needs under the current school funding model, the Master Facilities Plan will help us direct resources as strategically as possible to meet the needs of students and staff now and into the future.

In the short-term, our facilities and maintenance team has been able to address a number of quick-fix needs that were brought to our attention during the site visits; things such as repairing a leaky ceiling, repairing a thermostat, fixing a noisy air handler, patching a wall, repairing a bathroom door, etc.

The district also successfully passed the Elementary and High School Building Reserve Levies, which ensures that we can continue upkeep and maintenance of our school buildings over the course of the next decade.

Facilities and technology concerns go hand-in-hand as we address concerns around school building access and safety.

During summer break, our facilities and tech teams will use the last remaining dollars from the Elementary Technology Bond to install 12 new electronic door fob readers in elementary and middle schools to address staff concerns about door access. Additional exterior cameras are also being installed at elementary schools to cover blind spots. Meanwhile, door buzzers are now installed on all K-8 exterior doors that will sound if a door is left open or ajar for more than three minutes, with the exception of doors that are staffed.

At the high school level, phone systems are now synced with the emergency response system. This allows staff to use a four-digit code to simultaneously summon emergency responders and initiate district lockdown protocols.

Staff also shared concerns around printing and copying.

In response to barriers to student printing, our technology team has enabled high school and middle school students to print directly from their Chromebooks.

Meanwhile, our technology team continues to focus on addressing work orders as quickly as possible, prioritizing requests that critically affect classroom instruction.

Technology staff will also complete projector installations over the summer.

Enhancing technology for students and staff will continue to be a focus area as we identify solutions and seek additional funding.

Improvement initiatives
One of the tenets of quality instruction is continuous improvement. To that end, we’ve introduced initiatives to implement proven, research-based best practices across grade levels. These include Standards-Based Grading, the Instructional Framework, PAX and WIN groups.

During our site visits, you told us that you need time and support to master these practices, and we heard you. We took on a lot with these initiatives, and I appreciate all you have done to bring these improvements to our classrooms during challenging times. Please know that your work is having a positive impact on our students and our community.

This summer, we’ll focus our energy and resources on ways to support you in this work. Just this week, our Standards Based Grading Committee met at Lincoln Center to develop strategies to support teachers with consistent measuring and reporting for Standards Based Report cards. We look forward to sharing improvements with you this fall.

We’ll take time in 2023-24 to dial in best practices at every level, from administrative support to delivery in the classroom.

Student Mental Health Support
Educators across the district told us they are stretched between managing mental health issues in the classroom and staying focused on teaching and learning. I recognize the need for increased student mental health support as one of the most critical issues facing our district.

This year the district created a School Health Grant Facilitator position, which is itself supported by grant funding. Long-time HPS educator Lona Carter was tapped for this role and is charged with three goals:

  • Formalize sustainable community partnerships between Helena Public Schools and community health care providers, creating a menu of on-campus, community and/or virtual supports for youth in need. Barriers to care will be removed as services will be delivered at school sites.
  • Implement and sustain a continuum of best-practice trauma-informed trainings.
  • Provide real-time behavioral health interventions.

Her work has resulted in three new school-based behavioral health clinics to open in early 2023-24:

  • Helena High School & CR Anderson. Provider: Helena Indian Alliance
  • PAL (Project for Alternative Learning). Provider: PureView Health Center

Meanwhile, we continue to work with our community’s behavioral health providers to open similar clinics at Helena Middle School and Capital High School.

The district also signed a Memorandum of Understanding this spring for a partnership with Carroll College’s new Licensed Clinical Social Worker program, which will launch in the 2023-24 school year.

And this spring, the district added the Rural Behavioral Health Initiative Mental Health Screening process for grades 6-12. The program includes same-day mental health care for students with high risk of suicidality.

I look forward to sharing more details on these efforts as they evolve. In the meantime, I encourage you to take a few minutes to review Lona’s recent presentation to the Board of Trustees on student mental health needs and her work.

In closing
As you can see, there is work happening on many fronts to move our district forward. I hope I’ve addressed questions you may have and look forward to sharing more updates as these efforts progress.

We have just three weeks left until the end of the year! Whatever your role – custodian, administration, para, food services, counselor or teacher – please take time during the next few weeks to step back and reflect on the impact you have made. Your work is appreciated.


Signature: Rex M. Weltz

Rex Weltz, Superintendent
Helena Public Schools