Blogging about the Sweetest Things in Life

Reflections on the extraordinary moments of an ordinary Mother.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Sacred Cows in Colstrip

As I was leaving the community meeting on Monday, someone mentioned "That's a lot of sacred cows they are shooting in there."  I think his observation was very fitting!  As I was thinking on his comment through the night this video came to mind:

It's a fun video to watch but as I pointed out on my facebook share, these are expensive pets, so expensive the farmer had to start a foundation to afford them.  In some ways our school buildings in question are the expensive pets of the school district.  They cost a lot just in general maintenance and are being way underutilized in capacity.

Pine Butte:              current population  254   ideal capacity  336  current percent capacity  76%   
Frank Brattin MS:   current population  145   ideal capacity  315  current percent capacity  46%
Colstrip HS:            current population  200   ideal capacity  635  current percent capacity  31%

Population number are pretty close but may not be exact.

These ideal capacity numbers use an average of the low/high capacity range given Monday.  If we shift to max capacity, the percentages are 61%, 35% and 28%.     Any way you slice it you can see that these buildings are our community's expensive pets, sacred cows if you must.  This also doesn't address Isabel Bills Community Learning Center whose official student capacity is 0% but continues to be maintained.  There is a little rental income, but clearly businesses have struggled at that location.

Herein lies the problem, under using these building is not an efficient way to spend school district dollars at all.  That building is being cleaned, heated, cooled, and lit the same as if it were at 100% capacity.  It still needs upkeep the same.  You can't replace only 46% of a roof because you only have 46% currently being used.

The assessment Monday was that Isabel Bills and Frank Brattin would cost the district 4.5 million dollars in utility cost and maintenance over the next 15 years.  4.5 million dollars to serve our students 0% and 31% respectively.  I contend that cost is actually low because it doesn't take into account the personnel that travels between campuses.  Maintenance staff are making a minimum of 4 trips a day between campuses; at 7 minutes each way (a number I know very well, living a block away from Pine Butte) that's a minimum of 30 minutes of completely unproductive time each day, likely more.  The nurse travels, some of the teachers travel, even the school lunches "travel".  Each and every one of these trips is a cost in lost productivity that should be considered.  There's also the physical resource costs that should be considered.  The high school recently had to replace an expensive piece of equipment in the industrial arts lab.  The middle school has this same piece of equipment but since it's at a different location it's not available for the high school students.  Eliminating the cost of duplicate physical resources between the two campuses would be another area of savings.

One might think I am advocating the massive, do it all approach.  I'm not...   necessarily.  I have my thoughts and opinions about all the options no doubt, but what I really want to see is people letting go of their pet cow to at least acknowledge and consider these issues.  If the community members really make an educated decision to keep that pet cow, that's OK.  They just need to understand and be OK with the cost to feed it.  They need to understand that feeding and caring for that cow is going to have an effect on how they manage the rest of the herd.

There were a number of people at Monday's meeting who had been deeply involved in the design and building of the schools 30 years ago, and understandably have an emotional attachment.   There were a number of people who attended these schools as youth and have a deep emotional attachment.  It's understandable.  I pointed out to our sacred cow observer that if I had a 30 year old house, I would definitely be itching for some updates.  Things are different these days.  A lot of 30 year old houses don't even have a master bathroom, not to mention their tiny little kitchens.  It would be hard to find someone who wouldn't agree it could use a remodel.  It's OK to love your house and at the same time to say, "if I had this to do over again I would do x, y, and z."  It's OK to love the building you attended or work in, but to also say "gee it would be nice to have x, y, or z."

These facility meetings are a chance to collectively say, "Has anything changed in 30 years?  Are we serving our students the best way we can? Are the buildings as they are the best way to use tax payer dollars?"  Thirty years ago it was impractical at best to travel to even a half dozen schools to see design layouts and study the best learning environments.  Most people rely on their own personal experiences, which is typically limited at least regionally.   We live in an age now where we can virtually tour schools and learning environments across the entire globe!  Why not open our minds to some of the ideas and concepts that are out there.  Take the good and twist and mold it to fit what we want for our students in Colstrip, whether that's lower impact remodeling projects or bigger building additions.  That is what this planning is all about!

If you have ideas, pictures or experiences you would like to share, please comment!


  1. Shanna,
    Your insight on the issue before us is so powerful and you put into written words what needed to be said on Monday. I'm not sure people understood the cost to maintane the buildings that are so under utilized. As a school employee and tax payer in Colstrip, I want the most bang for my educational buck and unfortunately I don't see that currently happening.

    We need to figure out a way to get this message to more people. I am so impressed with the thought and time you put into this post. The video brought tears to my eyes and made your message even more powerful. You are a valued member of this group. Keep up the good work!. Debi Smith

  2. Thank you Debi! As taxpayers we don't usually get a lot of input into how our tax dollars are spent, or sometimes wasted. This is a good example of a time when we do.

  3. I am one of those who has deep emotional ties with the original Colstrip School building, going to grade school and graduating there, going to movies on Friday night in the theatre, acting on the stage in the auditorium. Three of my aunts graduated from highs school here int he 50's... lots of memories. All the options involve closing this bit of history. Closing the school will save the district 4.5 million dollars over the next fifteen years IF they can close and SELL the buildings. With all the problems that the middle school is supposed to have that can't be cured by remodeling, who would purchase this building? Realistically, IBES closed years ago and it is still being maintained by the district. if neither building can be sold, there will be no savings to the district, because they will have to be maintained.
    It seems inevitable that FBMS will be closed and moved to the lower level of the high school. With the entire area being reconfigured. I hope that before a plan is agreed upon, teachers will have some input into the spaces. The school spaces that were shown as examples had lots of open common areas that can be closed with "barn doors" if you ask teachers who have ever taught with this open concept they did not like it. A good example is the library at Pine Butte, it is noisy and distracting, Another extremely important item is windows, ones that can open. It was my understanding that the middle school classes would be separate from the high school classes, Shanna your comment that the middle school shop had a piece of equipment that could be used by the high school with consolidation. Does that mean that the shop classes, family consumer science classes, art, and library would be shared? I can't agree with co-mingling of high school and middle school students.
    Yes there are a lot of sacred cows, but I think there are also many questions that have not been answered yet and they were not answered Monday night. Donna McCulloch

  4. Thanks for your comments Donna! I can only speak as far as what was discussed at the workshop last fall, but the McKinstry folks were very clear that these savings were based on closed closed buildings and that many districts find it very hard to "keep their hands off" (my words not theirs) the closed buildings in the district. After awhile it's being used for storage, then opened for an event, and next thing you know it's back on the books being heated and maintained, ala IBCLC. There wasn't a lot of discussion about demolition, I think everyone hopes someone might make use of it as it is. Maybe a Dull Knife extension location, or MCC extension. But it's true that the same things that limited us to not being able to explore an update or altering the spaces for the students, would be a limiting factor for a new owner. As far as industrial arts I don't mean to imply that anyone suggested "co-mingling" classes between middle and high students, but it's my understanding is that most specialty areas aren't being used every period of every day. There was discussion about scheduling and class offerings and both building Principals were highly involved, which gave us great insight. It's my understanding that they want to get a LOT of input and feedback from the teachers and staff. There was even discussion about doing some remote/virtual tours of other schools and speaking with the faculty about their experiences and feedback. Barn doors or "garage" style doors were one way to make a larger common space when you want and two separate spaces when you want. I know classrooms do this in the elementary now, based on my own kids, but they have to do the multi-class projects together in a single room. If teachers don't ever want to do group projects I guess they would leave the doors closed all the time. What you're referring to are the "break out" areas, that aren't used as a daily classroom setting, rather as a place where small groups or multi class groups can gather to work together. It doesn't replace a classroom though. It was similar in concept to what the middle school student group proposed to the school board last year as a matter of fact, just in a common area not a room with four walls. To me it reminded me of some of the study areas in the student union at my alma mater. I hope that helps. I'll try to find my notes about who was at those meetings from FBMS and I'm sure they could tell you more details, too.