Somers-Lakeside Survey Reveals Opposition to Kalispell School Partnership

School board to decide whether to send middle school students to Kalispell

By Dillon Tabish
Students eat lunch at Somers Middle School in the cafeteria where tiles are peeling off the floor on April 16, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

A majority of people surveyed in the Somers-Lakeside school district is opposed to sending students to a potential new middle school in Kalispell.

According to the results of a survey sent to district residents over the last month, 71 percent are against entering into an interlocal agreement with Kalispell School District 5. The deal would send an estimated 150-180 middle school students to a new facility planned on the south end of Kalispell.

Of those surveyed, 87 percent said they would rather support a construction bond to retrofit Somers Middle School, which was built in the early 1950s and last upgraded in the 1990s.

A total of 229 people filled out the survey, according to Somers-Lakeside School Superintendent Paul Jenkins.

The school board plans to decide whether to sign the interlocal agreement at its meeting on May 25, Jenkins said.

“It’s a very, very difficult decision,” Jenkins said. “The board, to their credit, has stayed neutral. They’ve listened and they’re going to weigh every factor and every variable. They need to do what’s best for the students.”

Kalispell’s school district is in the final stages of a yearlong process to address overcrowding and persistent growth by building three new elementary sites, including a new middle school, and upgrading the existing facilities. A planning committee is slated to present its final recommendations to the school board next month and a bond request is likely to go out to voters in fall.

During the last 12 months, Kalispell has discussed the agreement with the Somers-Lakeside district, which has an aging middle school in need of repairs and could help offset costs for Kalispell’s new facility.

At the heart of the decision is whether to send roughly 150 middle-school students — and approximately $1 million in state funding — to Kalispell. Families could benefit from a new school with more course offerings. But the agreement would effectively close Somers Middle School, leaving the facility with an unknown fate while also impacting 16 teachers. School officials have said the teachers could apply in Kalispell but there would not be any guaranteed positions. Any teachers hired in Kalispell could also face a pay cut as they enter into a new district with a different pay structure.

Somers-Lakeside administrators would have to weigh whether they could afford to keep the middle school facility open as an elementary site with the lost revenue from students going to Kalispell, Jenkins said.

Families would still be able to choose where to send their students but would have to pay a $350 annual tuition to attend Kalispell’s new middle school. The other nearby option would be Bigfork, which does not charge an out-of-district tuition.

Somers-Lakeside is likely to face impacts either way. The addition of a new school in south Kalispell could draw elementary students from Lakeside. Even without the interlocal agreement, some families may still send their students to the middle school in Kalispell, taking state revenue with them. This would create an unknown financial impact to Somers-Lakeside, which has historically struggled to gain voter-approval for bonds or levies. Last year voters did approve a general fund mill levy worth $185,000 annually, the first successful levy in the district since 2006.

Now the prospect of an agreement with Kalispell appears to have galvanized support within the district to keep the current structure intact.

“Maybe this will motivate or inspire the community to save our schools and our programs,” Jenkins said. “We have some fine middle school programs down here and some fine teachers supporting them.”