BILLINGS - A split Billings School Board took a step forward Tuesday night toward raising the high school enrollment age - opening the door for a Billings West High special-needs student to graduate - but stopped short of taking immediate action.
The board voted 6-3 at a special meeting at the Lincoln Center Auditorium to place the measure amending its policy 2050 on the agenda for its April 18 regular meeting. The proposal would allow all students who turn 20 on or before Sept. 10 to enroll in high school. In addition, it would allow certain students who fall under the provisions of a new Montana law aimed at expanding education access for special needs students, HB 233, to enroll on a case-by-case basis.
The board appeared likely to take final action at the April 18 meeting, but another vote remains possible.
The amendment was introduced by Trustee Mike Leo. He was joined in support by Trustees Scott McCullough, Jennifer Hoffman, Russell Hall, Brian Yates and Tanya Ludwig.
Voting no were Trustees Greta Besch Moen, Janna Hafer and Zack Teradekis. All three said they supported raising the enrollment age to 20 but were concerned about the uncertain costs of the second provision. Superintendent Greg Upham said the district was uncertain how many Billings students qualified under the HB 233, which made it tough for the district to calculate the costs.
The board also voted down a motion to immediately approve the measure Tuesday night. The action required a unanimous vote, and Hafer was the lone holdout.
The issue came before the board following community outcry in support of Emily Pennington, a student with Down syndrome who will turn 19 this summer.
Pennington said after the meeting that she felt good about what's to come.
"I think it feels really good. Just keep on going on throughout this process and get me back in school. That's the whole thing I want to go through," Pennington said.
Montana legislators passed a bill last year, known as HB 233, that allowed school districts across the state to extend high school education for students, such as Pennington, with special needs. Districts were also allowed to opt out, which Billings did. Superintendent Greg Upham had argued that the state hadn’t allocated enough money to pay for the dozens of students who would qualify, which could end up costing the district around $1 million.
Community members rallied around the Pennington family, with dozens of parents blasting the board and its policy last week at a public hearing. The story made national headlines andsparked hundreds of students at West High to walk out of class in support of Pennington earlier Tuesday.
Following the board's decision, the Penningtons told MTN News they were encouraged by the outcome but disappointed it took community uproar to get this far.
"We're not to where we want to be, but we're getting there. We can see the momentum actually building within the board. I think the board needed to be informed really about what was going on. I think that they were operating in a vacuum and had no idea that there was a problem until the community really went into an uproar about the whole thing. Then they said, 'holy cow, what's going on?' But I think the district has a process problem, being able to get information to the board," said James Pennington, Emily's father.
In the final remark of the meeting, Upham apologized speaking directly to the Penningtons.
"I want to address the timing of HB 233. That's my responsibility and I've taken appropriate measures that this doesn't happen again. I take full responsibility for it. I apologize. I apologize to you. We will correct this issue in the future and I'm sorry," Upham said.
Watch the full meeting below: