Somers Schools ‘Can’t Afford’ Siderius Commons

By Beacon Staff

An impasse between the Somers School District and developers of Siderius Commons highlights the question of how to best increase public services in the face of growth, and foreshadows challenges the development might face as it begins the planning process.

Last week, the Kalispell City Council voted unanimously to change its growth policy to allow commercial, industrial and suburban residential uses for some 550 acres south of Kalispell. The amendment opens the way for Siderius Commons, a 207-acre development located on the west side of U.S. Highway 93 south of Cemetery Road.

Plans for Siderius Commons are in their earliest stages, but it’s expected to have some 535 homes and a neighborhood-hub business district. To keep prices in the more affordable $135,000 range, the developers plan to hold at least 100 of those homes in a community land trust – where a buyer purchases only the structure, not the property.

That’s good news for affordable housing advocates, but a quandary for Somers-Lakeside School District officials who anticipate a major surge in enrollment if the project goes through.

“A lot of the development in this area has been higher-end, so we aren’t affected – there’s not a lot of families buying $500,000 lots in Eagles Crest,” Superintendent Terri Wing said. “The big draw of the Siderius development will be the affordable housing. That’s good, but for us it means more students – and we aren’t in a place to handle that right now.”

Last year, voters denied a $7.125-million bond request from the school district. Had it passed, the bond would have been used to construct a new building on the middle school campus to alleviate over-crowding in the district’s existing schools, where enrollment has increased by 15 percent over the last decade.

Jerry Nix, project coordinator and director for the development, estimates Siderius Commons could have about one child per household, or 535 new students – almost double the district’s current enrollment.

Initially, Siderius Commons’ developers proposed donating land for a new school site within the development to help the school district accommodate new students. Wing said the land donation is significant, but “comes with strings the district can’t afford,” especially considering the pressing needs in its current schools.

“We’d have to come up with 10 or 12 million, plus the infrastructure costs, to build a new school there,” Wing said. “We would use up all of our bonding capacity and have to convince voters throughout the entire district to support just those living in the Siderius development with a new school.”

Unable to find a solution that was agreeable to both the school district and the developers, Nix suggested changing district boundaries to allow children from the Siderius project to attend Kalispell schools.

“The school district boundary was drawn long ago when Kalispell was a small town,” Nix said. “That’s not a problem until cities like Bozeman and Kalispell and Missoula start growing, and as the cities push out it throws a monkey wrench in development.”

“I think it’s more of a south Kalispell than a Somers project,” he added.

The change, however, would force the Somers school district to give up a sizeable portion of its tax-base and assumes the Kalispell School District, which already has several full classes in its own right, could handle the increase.

While other states have found ways to mitigate the effects of new development on schools, Wing said Montana often leaves schools with an unfunded mandate.

In 2006, a Flathead County committee started studying impact fees, but frustrated with complex state laws and incomplete information suspended work last fall. And the committee had focused largely on roads and the justice center – not schools.

“If someone decides to build 500 homes, it becomes our problem to figure out how to educate the kids and convince everyone in the district to support a bond,” Wing said.