Prairie Lights: Taking pride in tax money well spent


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

The new addition (background) is a beautiful fit with the original part of McKinley Elementary School. Billings voters, you done well.

I never attended McKinley Elementary School, but I learned plenty there.

I learned that a good school becomes not just the center of children’s lives, but of their parents’ lives, too. For the 13 years that our three girls attended McKinley, our lives revolved around that old school in so many ways.

Old Ed

Ed Kemmick

We lived just a half block west of McKinley and I worked from 3 to midnight for many of those years, so the morning walk to school, and then walking with the kids around the playground until the bell rang, was a familiar ritual, one I never tired of.

I put in a stint on the PTA there, went to countless parent-teacher conferences, sat in on classes, often had lunch with the girls in the crowded cafeteria-gym, went to Doughnuts for Dad and helped out at Muffins for Mom and got to fly down that fire escape slide more than a few times.

With a gang of other parents I helped put in landscaping at two corners of the grounds, and I lent my inexpert help to the crew that assembled the old playground equipment.

I volunteered once to check the new kindergarteners for school readiness. Trying to explain, and then to demonstrate, how to tie shoes was ridiculously challenging, and vastly increased my respect for what teachers do every day.

Most of our friends were fellow McKinley parents, and those of us who lived close to the school started a tradition of throwing a last-day-of-school party at a different house each year. The adults would eat and talk and drink libations they felt they had earned while the kids ran up and down the block, intoxicated by the idea of a summer of freedom.

I didn’t realize how closely I was attached to McKinley until there was talk, 10 or 15 years ago, of tearing the school down. One night I had a vivid dream of sneaking into the building while the wrecking ball was doing its dastardly work and trying to salvage some of the beautiful plaster friezes that adorned so many of McKinley’s hallways.

The friezes, long panels of high-relief sculpture, pictured scenes from ancient history, mythology, the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the landing of the Pilgrims. These, together with busts of Presidents McKinley and Lincoln and two other worthies whose names I forget, gave that beautiful old school an air of extra distinction.

It harked back to a time when schools really were conceived of as temples of learning, places where you lapped up not only facts and figures but beauty, tradition, a respect for the past and an appreciation of your community.

So to have toured the new McKinley School, nearly doubled in size and renovated throughout, was a wonderful and wondrous experience, every bit as affirming as the prospect of its demolition had been horrifying.

People familiar with the old McKinley will hardly recognize the new school. There are bathrooms on every floor, elevators, a spacious library, a new lunchroom and a new, large, high-ceilinged gym. And while the old basement might have been almost charming with its dark, maze-like passages and uneven floors, it probably scared the hell out of kids, so good riddance.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Here is one of the friezes I dreamed of trying to save.

Best of all, the new addition and the renovations are fully in keeping with the classic architecture of the old building, as are the materials. The same care and respect for tradition was shown at Broadwater Elementary, which underwent a similar expansion and renovation.

What is even more remarkable is to consider that within a five- or six-block radius of McKinley School, we also have a beautiful new library, a new baseball stadium and at, Pioneer Park, a new collection of playground equipment and soon-to-be-completed tennis courts.

These are the kinds of investments a real city needs to make. They make me proud to live here, in a city where people are smart enough to vote for a tax increase if they believe it will ultimately benefit everyone in the community.

Contrast that with the attitude of a couple of City Council candidates who have criticized the creation of a disc golf course in Pioneer Park, as if it were some silly, superfluous, completely wasteful expenditure.

I’m guessing these are the kind of people who don’t get out much, and probably don’t use the parks. If they did, they’d know that dollar for dollar, and considering how heavily used the disc golf course has been, it might be one of the most cost-effective expenditures in the history of the city.

Maybe if they’d gone to a school as fine as McKinley they’d understand that.

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