Leading up to the first day of school, Mark Flatau has quickly acquainted himself to living in Kalispell. The new superintendent of the city’s public schools has even had a grizzly bear pass through his neighborhood west of town.
“I guess that’s just part of living in Montana,” he said last week from his office in downtown.
Flatau, the former school superintendent in central Washington, has settled into his new role as Darlene Schottle’s successor. Schottle retired in June from the top job in School District 5 last year after 11 years.
Flatau has wasted little time getting to work. He has launched a campaign to survey staff and administrators about everything related to the school district —potential needs and issues and advice for him to most effectively manage the valley’s largest collection of schools. He’s also seeking input from the community.
“Right now I’m coming in with more questions than answers, which I think is a good thing,” he said. “What are some things we could maybe improve upon? Are we spending our resources as efficiently as we can? I’m just trying to get a really strong sense of where we are and where we need to be.”
Flatau is also focused on developing a strategy for addressing the district’s spiking enrollment.
Last week Flatau and the district’s board of trustees settled on a 25-acre piece of property south of Kalispell that could be acquired for future facility needs, including a potential middle school and elementary school. The school board agreed to enter into a sale agreement for a parcel of land near the corner of Airport and Cemetery roads.
The school district negotiated an agreement with Walter Stoller to purchase his land and then swap it for another adjacent property currently owned by Sam and Julie Baldridge. The school district has eyed the Baldridge property for some time as an ideal location for any future development, but the district was unable to acquire the land earlier this year for $420,000.
Now, a deal is being made with Stoller to purchase his property for $385,000. That property has topographical issues that make it cost-prohibitive for any future development, which is why the school district is trading for the Baldridge section.
The district would pay $25,000 to the Baldridges and cover the closing costs associated with the transfer of titles. With attorney fees and title transfers, the final cost to the school district will be $416,500. The agreement would be contingent on a legally binding contract with Baldrige to transfer the title after closing on the Stoller land and written approval from the City of Kalispell that the Baldridge property will be rezoned and annexed into the city.
The district would also need voter approval. Funds have been stored in separate accounts over the years for the inevitable need for future development, Flatau said, but the district needs the approval of voters in the elementary school district before tapping into those funds.
“There is no request for funding,” Flatau said. “Fortunately we don’t have to go to the voters and ask for money. But we do have to ask voters for permission to buy the property.”
The measure will be on the Nov. 4 ballot.
Last winter, Kalispell School District 5 reported 3,014 elementary students, its largest enrollment on record. Eight new classrooms were built as additions to two schools, but those classes were already filled to capacity by mid-year. Nine classes in the elementary district were filled beyond the state-accreditation standards of 20 students.
With another new school year approaching, the Beacon caught up with Flatau and asked him about rising enrollments, his transition to Kalispell, what his initial goals are and how he feels about the ongoing debate over Common Core. Here’s an abridged version of that conversation.
Beacon: What stands out to you now that you’ve been in the valley for a few months and the school year is approaching?
Flatau: I knew this was a great community but I’m finding out more and more how great it is. As far as the school district goes, I’m just learning more and more by asking questions.
Beacon: How do you put together a strategy that best effectively does what you’re saying but with a tight budget and overcrowded classrooms and fewer teachers and space?
Flatau: We have to demonstrate that we are using our resources wisely. I was told one time, “Every penny we spend of taxpayers money, it should be like a drop of blood.” That may a bit of a strong statement, but I’ve thought about that and I repeat it. It just demonstrated to me that we have to be cautious, we have to be prudent. So I think certainly demonstrating that we are working diligently to spend taxpayers’ dollars wisely is very important.
Beacon: Common Core remains a controversial subject across the nation. What’s your take on the new standards and how they’ve sparked widespread debate?
Flatau: I’ve had some really interesting conversations about this. I am fascinated by how a set of English language arts and mathematics — and that’s the extent of it, reading, writing and arithmetic — but I’m fascinated by how a set of standards has become such a politicized hot potato. With that said, we have a responsibility to demonstrate what those standards are, and that’s not difficult. You can go online and read them or come and read the packets we have at schools. Here’s what I always say: They are a set of learning standards. They were developed several years ago and despite what some people think, it wasn’t an Obama initiated takeover of schools, or brainwashing our kids. I don’t get that. I really don’t, and I will say I fall on the conservative line. So I’m a little perplexed that it tends to be the right side of the political spectrum that has the most concern.
What I tell folks is to take the standards home and read them. We’ll probably find areas of disagreement but it’s not disagreement on whether it should be taught or not. Common Core raises the bar. It adds a level of rigor. What is taught in fourth grade is probably going to be taught in third, not across the board but in general … We’re hearing form our business community that the United States is in not producing competent graduates. We have an issue in America. We’ve got folks like Bill Gates going to India and China in order to fill his workforce at Microsoft. Wouldn’t it be nice for more Americans to do get those jobs. That’s really the general concept behind Common Core. I don’t think it’s bad for kids or sets too high of expectations. They are standards and they guide our work. They don’t dictate how we teach. They don’t dictate what textbook we teach from. And the bottom line is that these standards are not much different thatn what Montana and Idaho and most other stats already had.
Beacon: You’re arriving at a time when Kalispell’s schools are experiencing record enrollments at the younger grades. How do you prepare for future needs and ongoing growth?
Flatau: That’s a significant challenge. We have to understand truly where we’re at and how we’re using our facilities. We have to demonstrate the growth and show it. I am always of the notion that when you go to the community for support because of growth, you better be bursting at the seams. It’s not just, “We think growth is coming and it will be here in three years and we need to prepare for that.” That works in a perfect world but we don’t live in that reality. So we have to demonstrate the need and bring people into our schools and show them what’s happening.
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