Kalispell Schools Address Long-Range Planning, Overcrowding

By Beacon Staff

Elementary school classrooms across the district remain overcrowded and the Kalispell School Board is hoping to find a solution with an updated long-range facility plan.

Superintendent Darlene Schottle presented a planning proposal draft at an Oct. 25 school board work session that would modernize the current facility plan to address new and future challenges in School District 5, namely overburdened elementary schools.

Currently the district is the equivalency of eight classrooms short for elementary students, according to Assistant Superintendant Dan Zorn.

“You have an immediate need right now for classrooms,” school board member Rob Keller said.

The long-range facility plan, which was last updated in 2004, has a list of “critical assumptions” that would give board members a framework for future decision-making.

The list includes a standard of excellence that should be maintained in academics and activity programs; a focus on ongoing upgrades, maintenance and technology improvements; an established facility plan that meets the diverse needs of students; and providing better infrastructure for all aspects of a school, like food service.

Also high on the list is relieving overcrowding in schools. The district has been grappling with high enrollments, lack of sustainable space and short staffing.

In September, the board voted to increase librarians’ work hours to full-time and add teacher aides to assist with the crowded classrooms. Help arrived at Elrod Elementary School on Oct. 24.

“I know my staff is happy that we have that extra support,” Elrod Principal Jeff Hornby said. “It’s really probably not enough. It’s a quick fix and we’d like to see a long-term fix. It’s a universal issue through our district that we have limited space for the numbers of kids we have.”

As a way to address the district’s congested classrooms, board members at last week’s work session entertained the idea of forming a board of trustees for the facility plan that would include community members and examine a wide array of options to present to the public.

Possible solutions that have been discussed include additions to existing space or building a new elementary school, but board members must find a way to pay for improvements or new construction, which could mean floating a bond.

Last March, Kalispell residents overwhelmingly rejected a school building reserve levy that would have provided the district with almost $6 million in funds for building improvements.

At the recent work session, the school district talked about presenting a bond to the public that would fund construction for a new school. If a bond were to pass in the next year, Schottle predicted a new elementary school could be running by 2014.

“We had community support with bonds in 2004 that allowed us to build a second high school, enhance the original high school structure, renovate and expand our junior high into a middle school,” Schottle told board members. “The staff and student outcomes within these buildings are a testimony to the positive impact that enhanced learning environments can have on student achievement and working conditions.”

The school board will vote to approve the updated long-range facility plan at an upcoming meeting and will move forward from there with trying to implement the goals.

“Despite this situation we must continue to examine our district needs in terms of an increasing student population, some aging facilities and the need to provide 21st Century learning opportunities to our students,” Schottle wrote in the proposed plan. “We believe that there is support for our schools, but we must be creative in finding funding solutions that will be supported by our community.”

At Elrod, Hornby has seen classes spill over into the library, where more student groups are being held. Discipline issues are a growing concern with the high amount of students, Hornby said, especially at recesses and in physical education.

The Elrod staff, like other elementary school staffs in town, is making adjustments, but Hornby would like to see a more permanent solution.

“It’s inevitable for Kalispell that we’re going to have to do something to accommodate this many kids,” he said. “Whether that’s a new building or an addition or more staff, something will have to happen.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.