Fewer Students Means Fewer Dollars for Some Area Schools

By Beacon Staff

School officials are stuck in a traditional biennial limbo, waiting for the state Legislature to set education budgets. But many of them are facing additional complications this year that will make budgeting an especially daunting task.

Enrollment is down significantly at three Flathead Valley high schools, meaning funding will decline with it. Given economic conditions, school officials are hesitant to ask voters to foot the bill for levies to make up the shortfall and the state is loathe to help much. Staff and program cuts seem likely.

Stimulus monies may give their coffers a lift, but no one can say yet what laws will govern the influx of federal dollars and how it will be distributed.

“This is my 10th year and this is the most difficult budget that we’ve worked on so far,” Russ Kinzer, superintendent of Bigfork School District, said.

Enrollment Shifts

Enrollment at the valley’s high schools, with the exception of the two largest public schools in Kalispell, is at its lowest levels in more than a decade.

After reaching enrollment levels as high as 945 students in the late 1990s, Columbia Falls High School’s rolls dipped to 830 students this year. It’s the lowest enrollment number there since 1994, when 829 students attended the high school, and part of a 10 percent decrease over the last decade.

Bigfork and Whitefish high schools, with 312 and 551 students, respectively, have their lowest enrollments since 1991. Bigfork has 25 fewer students compared to last year, a decrease of 7 percent, and over the last decade has lost 69 students as enrollment has declined 18 percent. As a result, the Montana High School Association recently decided to drop Bigfork High’s class status from A to B.

Whitefish has seen the most drastic drops of any area high school, with 93 fewer students this year than last, or a 14 percent drop, and 19 percent fewer students over the last decade. Just four years ago, during a period of rapid population growth in that city, enrollment there peaked at 742.

Meanwhile, Kalispell School District, which includes Flathead High School and, as of 2007, Glacier High School, is enjoying modest increases in their rolls.

After adding 13 students in 2007, the high schools added another 58 students this year, bringing their combined enrollment to 2,608. Their 10-year enrollment is up by 192 students, or 8 percent.

The Glacier Effect

Some Whitefish parents have expressed concern that Glacier High School has caused an exodus away from their district. In Glacier’s first two years of existence, Whitefish’s enrollment has dropped 9 and 14 percent.

Whitefish School District Superintendent Jerry House says the new high school to the south likely plays a small part in declining enrollment, especially since a recent levy to improve Whitefish’s high school failed.

“A new facility – that sort of thing plays a role in people’s decisions,” he said.

Last year, Whitefish voters denied a $21.5 million high school bond that would have been used to renovate existing space and add about 85,000 square feet of new construction. Proponents of the bond had argued that the current facility is inadequate and even unsafe for students and teachers. Plans called for new classrooms, a new food court and commons area, improved lab facilities, new electrical systems and a variety of other features.

In comparison, Glacier High School has a new $35-million, 243,000 square-foot campus.

“There are people living on the borders that rather than having to go 12 miles (to Flathead High School) now have to go two or three miles,” House said. “A lot of people will consider that choice as a matter of convenience.”

In Bigfork, where voters turned down the district’s request for a high school bond to improve facilities twice last year, a handful of students generally transfer to Flathead each year, Kinzer said. To make the school’s class offerings more attractive, Bigfork recently added a virtual program that allows students to take online, interactive courses.

It’s too simple, however, to blame enrollment changes throughout the valley on transfers. “Yeah, we have had some kids go to Glacier, that’s honestly the truth,” House said. “But there are a lot of other factors (for declining enrollment).”

Class sizes are often cyclical as the number of school-age children in a community fluctuates. In Columbia Falls, for example, the current sixth grade class is a healthy 190, while the grade just above it is one of the smallest Superintendent Mike Nicosia ever remembers.

All three districts say they have suffered from a slowdown in the economy, as families leave the area to find work. Whitefish and Bigfork are on the higher-end of the real estate market, making them less affordable for families.

“Enrollment is usually driven by socioeconomic factors,” Kinzer said, listing housing, jobs and local economies as examples.

In those regards, Kalispell – and, as a result, its school enrollments – has stayed stronger. “That little jump leaves us in a better spot than many school districts,” Dan Zorn, assistant superintendent for Kalispell School District, said.

The Million-Dollar Question

Since funding is largely determined based on student numbers, enrollment declines represent budget decreases. “It’s a lot like balancing your home budget,” Kinzer said. “If enrollments decline, your budget declines, and when your budget declines it becomes difficult to sustain current programs and staff.”

In Bigfork’s and Columbia Falls’ districts, at least, school officials say staff and programs will likely have to be reduced next year, either through cuts or attrition. Given economic conditions and the recent response to bond requests, school officials throughout the valley are hesitant to ask voters to make up shortfalls or help improve facilities.

And while federal stimulus funding could help, school officials say no one is certain yet what requirements will control its use or how it will be distributed.

A bill to increase state funding for public schools by 3 percent in each of the next two years is moving through the Legislature. School representatives have called it a “status-quo funding bill.”

“Since the state represents only about 60 percent of our funding, the budget increase for each school comes out closer to 1.5 percent,” Nicosia said, noting that it could be less in other districts.

Other legislative bills changing the requirements for retirement funding or allowing schools to carry over a small amount of reserves in their general budget could also help tight budgets, Nicosia added. But for many districts, tough choices lie ahead.

“It’s a delicate balance of what’s necessary for the school and students and what’s right for the public and taxpayers,” House said.

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