Billings School Board Proposes Plan to Extend Education for All 19-Year-Olds |


Billings West High junior Emily Pennington is about to compete in her senior year.

The school board passed first reading a policy change that will allow all students up to age 20 to enroll in secondary school. The change was brought about by Pennington, who has Down syndrome, and her parents’ intense efforts to persuade the district to enroll Emily for her senior year and let her graduate with her class.

The change will affect students whether they have special needs or not.

Policy 2050 had banned any student who turned 19 before September 10 from enrolling in the school. The new policy changes from 19 to 20 and allows students who meet certain criteria with special needs to enroll, provided they are not 21 by the September 10 deadline. Pennington is 18 and will turn 19 in July.

The policy will be read a second time at the regular council meeting on April 18 and members will vote again.

Board member Mike Leo speaks during a meeting of the School District 2 Board of Trustees at Lincoln Center in Billings on Tuesday.

MIKE CLARK, Billings Gazette

The controversial policy came to light after Jana Pennington, Emily’s mother, posted on social media about her fight. She had been working for months to have the issue of enrolling her daughter in her senior year added to the agenda of a board meeting.

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Since the public release and subsequent media coverage, the matter has been raised with the Superintendent and Board of Directors who hastily held a public meeting last week to discuss the policy and its relationship to a statute. of 2021 known as House Bill 233, which provided supplementary education funding for students with special needs.

The board considered five possible options on Tuesday, ranging from broad enrollment of 19-year-olds across the district to no action.

Superintendent Greg Upham warned that a general one-year addition to the age policy would be doable without major staff additions, but a general two-year change would require more full-time staff and funding. He also warned of another “zero tolerance” policy.

“It goes both ways,” he said. “This simplifies the task of the decision makers, but makes it more difficult to take into account any mitigating circumstances that would come into play in the advisability of making the decision.”

Administrator Russell Hall also advocated for a policy that allowed exceptions because “zero tolerance is what we’re talking about today,” he said.

In the end, three administrators voted against the measure and six administrators voted to amend. Every admin expressed interest in moving forward with the policy change, but some wanted it implemented immediately while others wanted to wait.

Greta BeschMoen

On Tuesday, President Greta Besch Moen leads a meeting of the School District 2 Board of Trustees at Lincoln Center in Billings.

Trustees Janna Hafer and Zack Terakedis opposed an immediate policy change with Chair Greta Besch Moen. The board also acted on a motion to waive the three-reading policy for the amendment, but that measure had to be unanimous and failed with a single non-vote from Trustee Janna Hafer.

After the vote, Upham apologized to the Pennington family and took responsibility for not aligning district policy with the law change last year.

“I take full responsibility, I apologize,” he said. “I apologize to you, and we will correct this issue in the future, and I’m sorry.”

Besch Moen told council members that the deadline to apply a permissive levy for the next school year passed in March, meaning the district could not add to its upcoming funds without passing a levy to complete. Immediate funding needs were unclear for the policy change at the meeting.

“Those comments on the budget memo and whether the OPI has budgeted enough for it are irrelevant,” administrator Mike Leo said. “We can certainly see what the implications are over the next year and take that into account, and revise that if we need to…it’s the right thing to do.”

Emily Pennington

Emily Pennington smiles as she looks toward her father James Pennington after a School District 2 Board meeting at Lincoln Center in Billings on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.

Billings Gazette MIKE CLARK

House Bill 233 was passed last July to provide funding for students with special needs up to age 21. Districts are not required by law to take advantage of this funding, which does not cover total planned expenses.

But Emily Pennington and her family’s struggle to enroll her in her senior year has made her the face of that controversy in Montana. The coverage drew comments and support from Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, a slew of state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and even Sen. Steve Daines, R- Mont., all of whom urged the school board ahead of last week’s meeting to “do the right thing” for Pennington and allow him to continue his education.

West High School Walkout

To support Pennington ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, hundreds of West High students walked out of class Tuesday morning.

Students gathered outside for about 30 minutes, some chanting “let her stay” and cheering Pennington.

“I always thought that [special-needs students] definitely need more attention because they’re not recognized for the struggles they go through and the way they’re always being made fun of,” West High sophomore Cami Goodman said on Tuesday. who was present at the walkout.

This controversy raises awareness of these struggles, she added.

Katie Rousch, a junior, has attended school with Pennington since seventh grade, describing her as having a positive attitude, working hard in class, and deserving to attend her senior year. She frequently helped another girl with special needs in a class, Rousch remembered Pennington.

Emily faces aging after repeating kindergarten due to numerous serious health issues and medical operations as a child, including open-heart surgery, a seizure disorder, and leukemia. At one point, she spent six months in a children’s hospital in Salt Lake City.

Rousch also had open-heart surgery, so she knows how difficult it can be to recover.

“I did it over the summer because my parents didn’t want me trying to catch up, but sometimes you have no choice,” she says.

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