Friday Update from Superintendent Weltz | January 12, 2024

Dear Families and Staff,

Thank you for your flexibility as we navigated frigid temperatures this week.

Our schools support essential services throughout our community – healthcare workers, law enforcement, firefighters, grocery store and pharmacy employees and so many others who must find emergency childcare when schools close. Our schools also provide a safe, warm environment and meals for families in need.

For those reasons, we strive to keep our schools open to the fullest extent possible. To balance this need, all absences today were excused, giving families the opportunity to choose the best arrangements for their circumstances.

Please join me in thanking our staff who made school possible for our students and families who needed us today.

In district business, I would like to provide an update on the Facilities Master Planning (FMP) process, which has been in the headlines this week.

The FMP process is common practice for school districts and is usually contracted out to a firm with extensive experience in the facilities planning field. The Board of Trustees hired such a firm, Helena-based SMA Architecture + Design, in fall 2022 to lead its FMP process – an exercise that was long overdue.

I use the word “overdue” because our district faces a significant “deferred maintenance backlog.” This is a list of facilities projects that have been delayed, in some cases for decades, in favor of more urgent needs such as repairing leaky roofs or mitigating fire hazards.

The average age of our buildings in the district is 62. And anyone who owns one of the older homes in the Helena area knows that maintenance needs grow as buildings age and functionality may not meet today’s needs.

Meanwhile, the educational landscape has changed. Today we have safety and security needs, environmental needs (modern HVAC systems) and educational technology needs in our classrooms that weren’t factors when most of our schools were built, plumbed and wired decades ago.

The FMP will bring these factors together in one report and recommend multiple paths forward – from making needed upgrades to each of our current district facilities, to consolidating some schools and building new ones.

If there is one thing I would emphasize, it’s that the word “plan” in the Facilities Master Plan is a bit of a misnomer.

The Facilities Master Plan is more accurately described as an analysis followed by a set of recommendations. Think of the “plan” as a map – it will show us our current location on the facilities landscape and provide multiple routes to get to various destinations. The district will revisit and update this “map,” if you will, each year to keep it up-to-date as the facilities landscape changes over the next 5, 10 or 20 years.

We’ve now reached an early milepost in our facilities planning journey, which began almost a year and a half ago. I’d like to thank all who shared feedback by responding to the district’s facilities planning survey last spring and who participated in meetings of the Facilities Master Plan stakeholders’ group with SMA.

SMA is now finalizing the draft plan, which it will present to Trustees at their next regular meeting February 13. At that meeting, SMA will provide Trustees and the public with a thorough walk-through of the document.

Trustees will then need time to review and digest the FMP and request any needed adjustments – a process that will likely take place over a number of months.

When Trustees give the FMP their final stamp of approval, the district’s facilities journey is just beginning.

Facilities actions that Trustees take as a result of the plan recommendations would need to be specific, publicly noticed Board action items – a process that would span the course of multiple Board meetings.

My point here is that the Board of Trustees’ receipt of the draft FMP next month is akin to our district unfolding a map. We will need to study the map and discuss where we want to go and what route to take. This will be a public process, and there will continue to be opportunities for public input.

As any Montanan knows, a good map is essential to a safe and successful journey.

We look forward to sharing this new map with you.


Signature: Rex M. Weltz
Rex M. Weltz, Superintendent
Helena Public Schools

The Board of Trustees meets Tuesday, February 13, at 5:30 p.m., at Lincoln Center, 1325 Poplar St. The meeting will also be streamed live. Watch for the Feb. 13 Board of Trustees meeting agenda and streaming link to be posted here closer to the meeting date.