Faced with an ongoing influx of young students in Kalispell’s classrooms, school administrators are asking voters for permission to acquire a 25-acre parcel of land off Airport Road for the likely development of a future facility.
On the ballot in this year’s general election is a request from the Kalispell Elementary School District No. 5 to use funds that have been accruing in a savings account to purchase property on the south end of town, an area with increasing student population but without adequate school space.
The request will not have a direct impact on residents’ property taxes by raising the number of mills. State law requires schools gain local permission before tapping into district funds for purchasing property.
“We’ve been saving for this and we have reserve funds for these purposes,” first-year school superintendent Mark Flatau said. “We’ll pay for it all. There will not be any impact on taxpayers for the purchase of the property.”
Administrators and the board of trustees have not yet decided what the property would be used for exactly, but Flatau said it’s within reason that a future elementary school and/or middle school could be developed on the wide-open property.
Overall enrollment in the elementary district this fall has already surpassed last year’s record amount. There are 2,031 students in kindergarten through fifth grade in Kalispell, 71 more than last year, according to the latest school enrollment data.
The five schools in the district are all approaching capacity or already there. Edgerton has 612 students; Elrod has 305; Hedges has 395; Peterson has 433; and Russell has 272. Only one school — Edgerton — has available space for any late-registered kindergarten students, Flatau said.
“We cannot accommodate all of the children in all of our elementary district,” he said.
In the last 10 years, the city’s elementary district has increased by 541 students, according to school data.
Eight new classrooms were built as additions to two schools — Peterson and Edgerton — but those classes were already filled to capacity by mid-year. Nine classes in the elementary district were filled beyond the state-accreditation standards of 20 students a year ago. This fall, 26 teachers have classes that are above accreditation standards, according to school data.
“This is as full as Peterson has ever been,” said Rick Anfenson, the longtime principal at Peterson. “The challenges are just making sure we’re supervising everybody and that we’re providing quality instruction everywhere across school settings.”
The talk of a new school site has floated around the district for years. The city, with a population of 20,000, has one middle school, which has over 1,000 students. Five elementary school sites dot the landscape, with the newest facility being Edgerton, which was built 22 years ago.
The constant enrollment growth fueled the district’s efforts to find a solution, along with the rising cost of land and shrinking availability of large sections of open property in the city.
“We’re planning for the future today because if we don’t do it today we’re going to get to a point where we’re at a crisis,” Flatau said. “There’s no question that we must look to obtain land now rather than sit and wait for that crisis point.”
After years of surveying the valley for a potential location, school officials landed on a pair of 25-acre sections in south Kalispell. The properties are currently empty fields just outside city limits, near the south entrance of the U.S. Highway 93 Alternate Route. The area has seen noticeable residential growth in recent years as multiple subdivisions, including the expansive South Meadows development, have added new phases while the bypass continues emerging.
For school officials, it was an ideal place for a potential future facility.
“This is an opportunity that we just can’t pass up on,” Flatau said.
The school district negotiated an agreement with Walter Stoller to purchase his land on Airport Road and then swap it for another adjacent property currently owned by Sam and Julie Baldridge. The school district has eyed the Baldridge property for some time as an ideal location for any future development, but the district was unable to acquire the land earlier this year for $420,000.
A deal was reached with Stoller to purchase his property for $385,000. That property has topographical issues that make it cost-prohibitive for any future development, which is why the school district is trading for the Baldridge section.
The district would pay $25,000 to the Baldridges and cover the closing costs associated with the transfer of titles. With attorney fees and title transfers, the final cost to the school district will be $416,500. The agreement would be contingent on a legally binding contract with Baldrige to transfer the title after closing on the Stoller land and written approval from the City of Kalispell that the Baldridge property would be rezoned and annexed into the city.
Ballots were mailed out Oct. 6. Polling stations will open in the city on Election Day, Nov. 4. For more information about registering to vote, visit flathead.mt.gov/election, or call 758-5535.