Officials Expect First Enrollment Gains Since 1994

By Beacon Staff

Montana’s school enrollment numbers have been in decline since the 1994-95 school year, but state officials are predicting increases by 2013 based on birth rates. The spike is expected to come from the growth areas of the state, such as the Flathead and Bitterroot, though Kalispell has already been enjoying enrollment stability over the last decade.

A bump in enrollment would be welcomed news for high schools like Bigfork, Columbia Falls and Whitefish, though for now those schools’ populations are decreasing, meaning district officials will remain stingy and creative with their budgets. State school funding is based largely off of enrollment.

Whitefish’s enrollment this year is 514, down from 551 last fall and 533 last spring. Bigfork, which dropped down to Class B for activities and athletics this year, experienced a small drop, from 312 to 309 from last fall to this year, following a prolonged period of substantial decreases. Meanwhile, nestled in between those two districts, is Kalispell, which continues to maintain a stable and, in recent years growing, enrollment.

Part of the increase, Kalispell Assistant Superintendent Dan Zorn said, stems from students transferring to the district from out of town. For a $150 processing fee, kids can attend high school in Kalispell while still living in their own district. The other factor, Zorn said, is people moving into town.

“It’s largely of a product of, ‘This is a pretty cool place to live,’” Zorn said.

But Kalispell’s surrounding areas are also known as nice places to live, which begs the question: Why are people leaving? One of the main reasons school officials have given is that Kalispell has larger schools with more program offerings, both academic and extracurricular. This has especially been a hot topic conversation since Glacier High School – a $35 million building – was completed in 2007.

Jerry House, superintendent of the Whitefish school district, said the economy has also played a role – people are leaving town to find jobs out of state. A number of other families have moved for different reasons. From last year, House said the high school lost 25 students to 11 different states and the middle school lost 12. Whitefish is in the infant stages of planning for a new high school.

This fall, according to Kalispell district figures, there are 40 students attending Kalispell high schools from the Whitefish district, 26 from Bigfork and 8 from Columbia Falls. Columbia Falls, like Whitefish and Bigfork, has experienced significant enrollment declines in recent years. All of which spells difficulties for those high schools in crafting suitable budgets each year, while Kalispell has a slight cushion with which to work.

“We are an anomaly along those lines,” Zorn said. “Because of that we’re, from a financial standpoint, in a little bit better shape.”

According to Office of Public Instruction figures from the decade 1997 to 2007, Kalispell’s elementary enrollment increased by 8.3 percent and its high school numbers grew by 5.9 percent. In that same time period, Bigfork’s elementary district dropped 15.1 percent and its high school enrollment decreased by 16.6 percent. In Columbia Falls, the decreases were 6.9 percent for elementary and 7.3 percent for high school.

Over in Whitefish, elementary enrollment declined by 16.8 percent and high school enrollment decreased by 2.4 percent between 1997 and 2007, though that doesn’t factor in the enormous drop over the next two years. Between the fall of 2007 and this fall, high school numbers plummeted from 644 to 514, a decline of 20 percent. Going back to 2004, enrollment has decreased from 742 to 514.

Zorn is optimistic about Kalispell’s future. The kindergarten population has remained at a healthy 300 or more over the past four years. When the district first hit the 300 mark after years of averaging about 250, Zorn said officials thought it would just be a “blip.” But it kept steady.

“I think that we could be trending upwards as a district just looking at our lower elementary numbers,” Zorn said.

Madalyn Quinlan, chief of staff at OPI, said Montana on average has an older population, and the most “underrepresented age in the state is childbearing age.” But shifts in birth rates, she said, are signaling increased enrollment numbers in the coming years, which would bump up the overall education budget for the state.

“It won’t be long before we tip the balance so we’re seeing enrollment increases statewide,” Quinlan said.

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