Grappling with Technology Demands, Kalispell Schools Seek Funding Boost

By Beacon Staff

Schools everywhere are trying to keep up with the digital revolution, which has redefined the range of opportunities that now exist in the classroom but has also forced educators to retool or fall behind.

“There is not a student in our schools who has not been raised without technology,” Kalispell Superintendent Darlene Schottle said. “It’s a natural extension of how they learn and how they interact. And if we are going to keep our education system relevant and up to date, we need to also interact with that technology.”

Faced with outdated infrastructure and a generation of students absorbed in technology, the Kalispell school district is asking taxpayers to help it adapt to the modern landscape.

The city’s public school system, encompassing nearly 5,800 students and more than 750 staff members, is seeking $1.2 million annually over 10 years to address technology needs, including communication systems, hardware and software that have become commonplace in the new era of education.

Voters will decide whether to approve two $600,000 levies that are being proposed, one for the elementary district and another for high school district. Ballots were mailed out this week and are due back May 6.

If approved, annual property taxes would increase $12.61 in the high school district and $29.62 in the elementary district for a homeowner whose house had an assessed value of $200,000, according to the school district. Taxpayers’ obligations for school funding would remain below the 2010 level thanks to the district benefitting from population gains in recent years.

The Kalispell Chamber of Commerce has voiced its support for the latest pair of levies.

The high school district has not had a technology levy in three years and the elementary district’s levy is ending this year.

Voters approved a five-year, $2.8 million technology and building reserve levy for the elementary district in 2010. A similar $6 million request for the high schools was shot down in 2011, with 4,630 voters opposed and 2,975 in favor. A year later, the district tried again, proposing a five-year, $4.12 million building reserve levy that would have addressed technology issues in the high schools. The levy fell short, but by a much narrower margin: 3,929 were opposed and 3,728 were in favor.

At a public forum last week, Schottle and other school staff explained the districts’ dire situation, describing the infrastructure, such as servers and equipment, as outdated and increasingly inadequate for everyday tasks.

Without levy funds specifically set aside for rising tech demands, the schools have had to dip into general funds, Schottle said.

“We need technology to do our everyday work within the school setting. We use it every day, all day long to manage our employees and to try and put an infrastructure in place that works,” Schottle said, pointing at basic business functions like accounting and other operations like keeping grades and attendance.

“It’s an integral part of how we do business, for teaching and learning. That’s the key reason why we care about technology: how does it keep students engaged, how can it make a difference.”

She added, “Our concern is that kids and teachers are falling behind.”

Rich Lawrence, the district’s IT director, said online connectivity — related to website use and other online applications used in classrooms and labs — is expected to increase tenfold in the next few years. There are nearly 6,000 devices — mostly desktop computers and tablets — in Kalispell’s schools, and a majority are over 4 years old, according to school officials.

The new — and many would say, necessary — trend in the education system is that schools are trying to devote more resources toward modern technology to adapt to the changing landscape.

In Whitefish, the high school is undergoing a major remodel and a group of anonymous donors recently rallied together to spearhead the development of world-class technology facilities and programs.

At Flathead Valley Community College, President Jane Karas has said the emphasis is centering on improving technology and updating the school’s curriculum and resources with modern advancements, a move largely seen as a way to keep up with the demands of a global economy.
Economists predict the tech industry will be the world’s fastest-growing job field between 2012 and 2022.

In Montana, the demand for high-paying computer-related jobs far exceeds the number of computer-science graduates, according to the state’s labor statistics.

MontanaSky Networks, a full-service information technology company based in Kalispell, struggled to find local employees in recent years, even as the unemployment rate ballooned, according to company official Scott Countryman. The company had to conduct a nationwide search to find adequately trained candidates who were well versed in modern technology.

“It’s in great demand in our valley and state, if we can foster that talent here,” Countryman said.

Educators are echoing the benefits of functioning technology as integral to nurturing young minds and preparing them for a world that increasingly relies on connectivity.

In Kalispell, teachers are trying to implement modern technology in their curriculum. At Glacier, an advanced engineering program has more than 125 students while a similar one at Flathead has more than 120.

“Technology is such a booming and demanding area and we’re trying to respond to that,” said Andy Fors, a teacher at Glacier who helps lead the engineering academy.

“We’re trying to give students classroom experience that is current and relevant, and these are transferrable skills that give them exposure to whatever direction they’re going.”

For more information on the tech levy, visit the district’s website.

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