Voters Overwhelmingly Approve Kalispell School Bonds

District to build new elementary site, upgrade other schools to address overcrowding, deferred maintenance

By Dillon Tabish
Students park in the neighborhood near Flathead High School on Oct. 20, 2014. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Kalispell voters overwhelmingly approved a pair of bonds for $54 million to build a new elementary school and upgrade other school facilities across the district, according to unofficial results released Tuesday night.

The mail-in ballot election ended at 8 p.m., Oct. 4, and with roughly 80 percent of ballots counted, 3,550 people had voted in favor of the elementary bond, while 1,950 were opposed, according to district officials. A total of 3,450 people voted in favor of the high school bond while 2,000 were opposed.

The results will be verified by Flathead County officials and formally accepted by the Kalispell School District Board of Trustees in the following week.

Only a few minutes after the election ended at the Kalispell School District #5 office in downtown, the results were already apparent to election officials who had been tallying ballots throughout the day. With results from only voters in Kalispell city limits, there was already a consensus of support for both bonds, leading to an outpouring of emotions shortly after 8 p.m.

“I’m just so grateful,” Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Mark Flatau said, wiping tears from his face. “We’re just so appreciative of people putting their trust in us because we know that when it comes to taxpayers’ dollars, that’s a holy trust and I understand that. And when they give that to us, it’s not taken for granted. It’s very much appreciated.”

Altogether, the two bonds represent the largest in Kalispell school district history.

The elementary district bond — $25.28 million — will address persistent overcrowding by building a new elementary school on Airport Road along with funding repairs and updates at the city’s existing five elementary schools and middle school. The new elementary school will be the first built in Kalispell since 1987, when Edgerton was developed.

The high school bond — $28.76 million — will go toward renovating sections of Flathead High School that are over 100 years old as well as deferred maintenance, along with an expansion of the Agricultural Education Center and upgrades at Linderman Education Center. The bond will also fund maintenance needs at Glacier High School and rebuild parts of Legends Stadium.

“We received a lot of positive comments on the manner in which information was presented leading up to this election and we felt good about that,” Flatau said.

“We’re just grateful that the majority seems to have spoken. I realize this is still unofficial results but we are grateful. We will be diligent in the use of those dollars.”

Emotions were high among other administrators, teachers and board members who gathered to hear the results. It was a mixture of relief and joy.

“It’s amazing,” Lance Isaak, vice chair of the Kalispell school board, said. “It’s great to see our community come together and say yes to kids. We haven’t built a new elementary school in nearly 30 years and to really address the future for that whole next generation of students, it’s overwhelming to be part of that and it’s exciting for our community.”

There were 29,723 registered voters in the elementary and high school districts who were mailed ballots on Sept. 19. Of those, 14,408 registered voters were in both districts, while 15,315 voters were in just the high school district.

For the 20-year bond, property taxes will increase an estimated $99 annually on a home in the elementary district valued at $170,000. For a similarly priced home in the high school district, property taxes will increase roughly $48 annually. For a home in both districts, taxes will rise roughly $147 annually.

The bond requests came at the conclusion of a yearlong planning effort involving over 40 community members, school staff and professional planners focused on addressing persistent overcrowding and facility needs throughout the two districts.

Since Kalispell last built an elementary school in 1987, the city’s population has doubled. Naturally, as the local population grows at one of the fastest rates in Montana, the student population is also spiking. The student population hit a record 3,018 kids last year, and the city’s five public elementary schools were 225 students over capacity. Besides Edgerton, the other four sites are all over 65 years old.

In recent years, the district has added classrooms onto existing sites, but those facilities are already filled while others are plagued by deferred maintenance, including electrical, plumbing and air quality issues, according to administrators.

In the elementary district, the new school will cost an estimated $15.7 million. The district has tentatively said the elementary school could break ground starting in April 2017 with a tentative completion date of August 2018. The renovations at the existing schools will cost another $10 million.

In the high school district, the spending will cover $18.19 million in upgrades and additions at Flathead High School, including $11.7 million for new construction; $4.64 million for renovations and upgrades at the Agricultural Education Center; $3.44 million for renovations at Linderman Education Center; $958,000 to rebuild the field at Legends Stadium; and $426,900 for deferred maintenance at Glacier High School.

Kalispell is among many cities across Montana grappling with growing enrollment and outdated facilities.

On Tuesday night, voters in Great Falls also overwhelmingly approved a pair of bond requests; a $52 million high school bond to address maintenance and expansion and a $46 million elementary bond to build two new elementary schools.

Last winter, Missoula voters approved bond requests for $88 million for elementary and middle school upgrades and $70 million for high school renovations. Last fall, Bigfork residents approved a bond request for $14 million to redevelop the high school. In 2013, Billings voters approved a $122 million bond to build two new middle schools and address $36 million in deferred maintenance. Bozeman passed a $26.37 million bond in 2012 for a new elementary school and upgrades to its other aging sites. Also that year, voters in Whitefish approved a $12 million bond to renovate the high school.