Flathead County’s population may be skyrocketing, but its school enrollment is not – a concern for educators, students and taxpayers alike.
Additionally, school officials say, Flathead’s enrollment stagnancy is a reflection of a socioeconomic reality: the predominant demographic moving to the Flathead is older, often retired with above-average wealth and without school-age kids.
“The whole thing is driven by socioeconomics,” said Russell Kinzer, Bigfork school district superintendent.
The influx of wealthy newcomers has inflated prices in the housing market, which makes it difficult for average families with kids to afford a house, school officials said.
Darlene Schottle, superintendent of School District 5, said Kalispell’s cheaper house prices are one reason that her district’s ninth through 12th grade enrollment numbers increased much more between 2000 and 2006 than the county’s other high school districts. The combined enrollment of Flathead High and Kalispell Junior High grew by 112 students, a positive sign for the new Glacier High School as well. High schools in Columbia Falls, Bigfork and Whitefish grew by a combined total of only five students.
Still, Schottle said, growth “hasn’t been as high as we anticipated.”
During the same time period Flathead County grew by almost 11,000, about a 15 percent increase, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Flathead County’s public schools, elementary and high school combined, grew by less than 1 percent. Elementary enrollment dropped.
State education funding is based on enrollment. When enrollment is stagnant or down, schools struggle to find sufficient funding for programs and staff. The state is responsible for making sure a school has enough money to reach its base budget, which is 80 percent of the maximum, said an official at the Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI).
After the base budget is fulfilled, a school can spend more money until it reaches its maximum budget. Schools with increasing enrollments receive more money from the state on a per-student basis, according to OPI, while schools with flat or decreasing enrollments look to the taxpayers in the form of mill levies.
But even mill levies have state limits, which means that once a school has exhausted its state funding and mill levy options, it resorts to program and staff cuts to compensate.
“Losing one student makes a big difference,” the OPI official said.
Kinzer said Bigfork’s elementary district has already reached its maximum budget and the high school is approaching it.
“The high school budget this year is really, really tight,” he said.
If enrollment numbers decline, which Kinzer said is possible, the district will have to make cuts and staff jobs will be on the line.
“You don’t reduce budgets with pencils and paper,” he said.
Columbia Falls has long been the largest high school in Class A. According to OPI’s October enrollment count, Columbia Falls had 878 students compared to Whitefish’s 704 and Bigfork’s 367. Flathead, a Class AA school, had 1,869 and Kalispell Junior High had 668, all ninth-graders.
Columbia Falls’ high school district, though, has lost 67 students since its peak in 1997. Back then, Columbia Falls had an alternative school, Eagle High School, that was included in enrollment numbers. It was later incorporated into Columbia Falls High School.
“It’s been astounding to us,” Columbia Falls Superintendent Michael Nicosia said, “when you see all the growth around you and not in the high school.”
In the past five or six years, Nicosia said, the entire Columbia Falls school district has lost about 100 students.
He said whole neighborhoods are popping up all around him, but none of this affects the high school. While Schottle said she expects about a 1 percent enrollment increase per year from 2005 to 2015, Nicosia said he expects more stagnancy, even if rapid population growth continues.
“I’ve been waiting for that for a number of years,” Nicosia said of a steady enrollment growth like the one Schottle expects. “I still haven’t seen it.”
Flat enrollment has hurt Columbia Falls’ funding and in 2002 the Columbia Falls school district filed a lawsuit against the state seeking adequate and cost-based funding. A district court ruled in favor of Columbia Falls in 2004 and after an appeal in 2005 the Montana Supreme Court upheld the 2004 decision.
The numbers, Nicosia said, still don’t add up.
“The government and Legislature can talk all they want about what a great job they’ve done,” he said. “But their math is a little fuzzy.”
Nicosia said he is uncertain about the future.
“With the way it’s been,” he said. “You can imagine how difficult it is to plan.”