Somers-Lakeside School Board Rejects Partnership with Kalispell District

Board members voted unanimously to rebuff a proposed interlocal agreement with Kalispell

By Dillon Tabish
Somers Middle School on May 24, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

SOMERS — In front of 13 spectators and 78 empty chairs, the Somers-Lakeside school board rejected an offer to send middle school students to the neighboring district in Kalispell, where a proposed facility could still have future ramifications on the lower valley and lakeshore communities.

The Somers-Lakeside School District #29 board on Wednesday night voted unanimously to rebuff a proposed interlocal agreement with Kalispell School District #5, opting to keep the rural district intact with Somers Middle School and Lakeside Elementary.

“I feel as though if we enter into an agreement now there’s no coming back. I think maybe we wait and see how it plays out,” School board member Meredith Coopman, who made the initial motion to reject the agreement, said at the meeting inside the middle school’s carpeted gymnasium.

“I don’t think people want to see the school closed. I like the small-school atmosphere for my kids.”

With much of Wednesday’s attendance made up of teachers and other school staff, board members sided with the majority of residents who recently expressed opposition to the interlocal agreement through a district-wide survey. A total of 229 people filled out the survey and 71 percent were opposed to the deal. 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.

Yet the sparsely attended meeting, which had significant implications for the entire district, reflected some of the concerns among school officials that the community could remain disinterested and unsupportive of future bond or levy requests.

“I really wish there were more community members here tonight. It’s a bit disheartening,” Somers-Lakeside School Superintendent Paul Jenkins said.

Jenkins said the fear is that a large number of families could still send their students to a new school in Kalispell, resulting in diminished operational funds that led to cuts to staff and programs in the Somers-Lakeside district.

“If there is no agreement and still a substantial number of students go to (Kalispell), will that result in Somers school closing?” Jenkins asked rhetorically.

Somers-Lakeside officials have said the district originally sought a potential agreement with Kalispell after years of rejected taxpayer levy and bond requests that have left the facilities languishing with deferred maintenance and operational needs. Last year voters did approve a general fund mill levy worth $185,000 annually, the first successful levy in the district since 2006. On Wednesday night, the school board also addressed the need to tap into $70,000 worth of reserve funds to pay for a new roof that is needed at the middle school.

Kalispell is nearing the end of a year-long process studying facility needs within its ballooning district. A steering committee has identified building an elementary and middle school off Airport Road on the south end of town as priorities. The school board will review the proposal, among others, at its June 14 board meeting before possibly floating a bond request to voters in fall.

As part of the planning effort, Somers-Lakeside officials discussed a possible agreement with Kalispell that would have sent the rural district’s sixth-through-eighth graders, as well as roughly $1 million in state funding, to the potential new middle school. The move would effectively close Somers Middle School and eliminate more than a dozen teaching positions in the lakeshore community.

Following the debate over whether to partner with Kalispell, board members expressed hope that the community would step up and support future needs for the current district.

“I believe that a year ago, we asked our community to invest in our schools and they responded,” said board member John Hollensteiner. “I believe in supporting our teachers within our current structure and I think that our students are benefiting greatly from the school we have now. We have great a program and we should be looking to improve upon that.”