Four years after Jefferson High School started seriously exploring the question of what to do with its cramped and aging campus, the moment of reckoning has arrived.

On Oct. 14, the school district will mail ballots for a special election, asking voters to approve a $12.5 million bond issue that would support the school's most significant improvements in at least 36 years.  

"We have a facility that's being used to the maximum of its capacity," said Superintendent Tim Norbeck. "I know it's a huge amount of money, but there's nothing extravagant in what the board is asking for. The bottom line for me is, we're trying to do what's best for kids."

The district's plan, developed with SMA Architects, a Helena firm with a focus on school construction, seeks both to catch up with education standards and to remedy the effects of decades of patchwork growth. If the bond is approved, SMA estimates that design and permitting for the work would take about a year, followed by approximately 16–18 months of construction. Depending on when that process begins and how long contracting takes, that could mean completion in time for the start of school in 2024.

Most prominently, the proposed work would remove the modular classrooms on the school lot's southeast corner, originally built in the mid-1990s to accommodate a surge of students brought to the area by employment at Montana Tunnels Mining operation in Jefferson City. The mine has been dormant since 2008, but population growth in Clancy and Montana City have returned the school's census to more than 300 students.

The district's plan envisions a new, two-story structure added to the east end of the existing school building. It would include five regular classrooms with mobile tables to encourage small-group work; new spaces for art, music and band, and special education; and two large science rooms accommodating both lectures and labs. The current labs, Norbeck noted, are "functional, but not highly functional."

The new wing would bring classes currently taught in the separate modular into the main building, Norbeck said—saving students a trip across the yard to use restrooms, for one thing, but also reducing disruption and improving security. SMA's plan also would add space for Career and Technical Education classes such as drafting, cooking, woods, and metals. And it would convert the existing band and music room into a drama classroom, with flexible partitions separating the existing stage and the new space on one side, and the old gym on the other.

That construction together accounts for an estimated $7 million, or 56% of the prospective bond revenue. Another $1.9 million, or 15% of the total, would go to mechanical, electrical and plumbing updates—such as exhaust fans for the gym, a water entrance line, boilers, fire protection and air conditioning. Improvements to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act—restrooms, locker rooms and showers, and ramps and stairways—would add $253,000.

The district would spend an estimated $682,000 on safety and security upgrades. The existing front entry vestibule and reception area would be demolished, replaced by a two-stage entryway allowing visitors to check in face-to-face with school office workers.

Improvements to the school's athletic facilities—an all-weather track with wider lanes, larger tennis courts, updates to the practice field and resurfaced parking—would add $756,000. Furniture, fixtures and equipment would cost an estimated $636,000, and soft costs—design, permitting, testing and surveys—would total $1.3 million, about 15% of the total.

As Norbeck notes, that's substantial: The bond would add $160.65 annually to the estimated property taxes on a $300,000 home. But it actually represents a middle path amid the options considered by JHS trustees. Last December, the district surveyed voters on alternative strategies to address the school's growing student population and the need for infrastructural improvements. Of those who responded, 17% supported moving Jefferson High to the northern end of the county. Another 16.7% preferred a bare bones upgrade, and 38.2% said they wanted no changes.

Construction similar to the current bonding plan was favored by 27.6% of respondents. And in January, the district board voted to abandon the possibility of a new north-end campus and to pursue the more comprehensive renovation. That decision was a nod to the need for more than superficial improvements to the school's plant, and also to the perception that Jefferson High increasingly competes for students with schools—notably, the newly built East Helena High School—that offer newer campuses better geared to evolving teaching and learning approaches.

Over the next three weeks, the district will bring its case to voters, informed by a communications campaign devised by SMA. School representatives hosted community meetings in Montana City and Clancy, respectively, on Oct. 4 and 5, and they plan further outreach through community events, volunteer fire departments and service clubs.

The goal, said SMA principal Klint Fisher, is to create a broad, grassroots movement that explains both the objectives of the bond issue and the rationale. "The key is about communicating the need to the voters," he said.

It's also about making sure people feel their concerns are heard and addressed. That's why the district has invested in multiple surveys and forums over the past two years. "People may not get everything they want," Fisher said. "But if they feel they've been heard, and they understand where bond ends up, they'll be more likely to support it."

The bond issue election will be conducted entirely by mail. Ballots must be returned to Jefferson High by Nov. 2, via mail to P.O. Box 838 in Boulder, or dropped off at the school at 312 South Main Street between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. on weekdays.

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