A bill that would allow some K-8 school districts in Montana to expand into high school has been approved by the state house.

The Billings Gazette reports that the 97-3 vote has sent Senate Bill 139 to Gov. Steve Bullock's desk. It would let elementary districts with more than 1,000 students expand into K-12 districts, if voters approve bond funds to pay for a high school.

If the governor signs the legislation, it would open the door to a split between Lockwood and Billings Public Schools. Lockwood, a K-8 district, sends its high school-age students to Billings high schools. Other districts that meet the expansion requirements are East Helena and Hellgate.

The proposed law would give K-8 districts that are eligible to expand to K-12 a five-year window to make the move. Districts would have to vote to expand, then vote again within two years to pass a bond to build a high school. If either vote fails, districts have to wait for another five-year window.

The Billings district has argued that the uncertainty of whether it will enroll Lockwood students in the future makes it difficult to plan, especially for advanced and elective classes and special programs.

Based on changes in tax base and student enrollment, Billings estimates that it would lose about $1.6 million in budget authority in its current budget. The projections also show a 2.65 mill increase for Billings taxpayers.

Billings board members have argued that Billings voters and not just Lockwood voters, should be allowed to vote on a district split.