When Mark Wilson began teaching third grade at West Valley in 1987, there were fewer than 200 students in the small rural school on the outskirts of Kalispell.
Twenty-six years later, the enrollment has ballooned to almost 600 students in kindergarten through eighth grade and the school is now situated in the fastest growing section of the Flathead Valley.
At the corner of Farm to Market Road and West Reserve Drive, West Valley School is in the heart of the bustling district just west of Glacier High School and a swath of expanding subdivisions. It’s also in the vicinity of the emergent U.S. 93 Alternate Route and down the road from the northern commercial district, which welcomes a new Cabela’s Outpost store in early November, with more businesses sure to follow.
“We’ve gone from being a little country school to a lot bigger school,” Wilson said. “It still feels like a country school in many ways, but our population has really changed.”
In response to the skyrocketing enrollment that’s expected to continue, the school district is floating a $6.8 million bond proposal to West Valley residents next month.
Mail-in ballots are being sent out Oct. 1 and are due back Oct. 22.
If successful, the bond would fund the development of additional classrooms, an auxiliary gym and expansion of the library, among other improvements within the 51-year-old facility.
“We’re literally out of space,” said Superintendent Cal Ketchum. “We’ve got closets that are now classrooms, storage areas that are classrooms. We’ve got classrooms in basements. We manage to do a good job but it’s not the best learning environment for students.”
Enrollment has risen 55 percent in the last 11 years and has averaged 5 percent growth each year, Ketchum said. This year’s enrollment is 549 students, which is 100 over the facility’s total square-foot capacity, he said. A demographic study that was compiled for the district estimated that continued growth in the area could lead to another 200 to 300 students in the next decade.
“They’ve done a good job over the years making it work but it’s time now to look at the future,” Ketchum said.
A town hall meeting is being held at the school on Sept. 25 at 7 p.m. School administrators will walk members of the public through the building and show the current situation and explain why the bond is being proposed.
West Valley has undergone a few upgrades to its original facility since it opened in 1962 with an enrollment of 57 students. The last expansion occurred in 2000.
The school proposed a $3.5 million bond in 2010 to address overcrowding issues, but voters rejected the request; 678 were opposed and 422 voted in favor.
The latest proposal would extend over a 20-year term with a 4.5 percent interest rate. Homeowners in the school district whose property has a phase-in value of $100,000 would pay an estimated $81 annually in taxes for the new bond, according to an impact analysis compiled by D.A. Davidson and Co.
Next year is the final year of the previous bond’s term. The bond was refinanced in 2010 to a five-year term because of low interest rates.
Residents who have been paying the previous bond amount would see a net increase of roughly $47 under the new bond, according to D.A. Davidson. A home valued at $200,000 would see an annual tax of roughly $163, a net increase of $95.
Cindy Foley, the school district clerk, pointed out that residents would still be paying less in taxes than in 2010 because the area has seen considerable commercial and residential growth, expanding the tax rolls and lowering individual amounts. In 2010, the average $220,000 home led to roughly $1,245 in taxes to the school. That rate has dropped $278 since then and the net tax increase of the new bond would equal $207, still less than the overall taxes in 2010, Foley said.
Residents can calculate the estimated tax impact from a new school bond by visiting Flathead County’s website, www.flathead.mt.gov.
Despite the failure of the last bond, school administrators say the overcrowding problem has only worsened.
A steering committee of staff and community members organized last spring and began working with CTA Architects Engineers for a solution. Public meetings were held regularly to explain the troubling situation and inform residents why upgrades are needed.
The primary goal is to build a new section for a middle school. The addition would add about 30,000 square feet to the school, which currently sits at roughly 60,000 square feet. The new wing would house sixth through eighth grade and make old space available to younger elementary classes. This could also mean making room for a new school kitchen in one of the older areas.
“I’ve always prided ourselves in having smaller classroom number and making that a priority,” Wilson said. “But when you have no more space you can’t make that a priority because you can only do so much. (The school upgrades) would be tremendous.”
To support West Valley School’s upgrades, administrators are accepting donations at the school or by mail to Community Bond Committee, c/o Nancy Wendt, 940 Clark Dr., Kalispell, MT, 59901.
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