With New Elementary School Emerging, Kalispell Begins Rearranging District Zones

Addition of new school forcing the district to change where students enroll

By Dillon Tabish
Students at Hedges Elementary eat breakfast and work on math on May 19, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Lindsey Bushnell and her family live on the east side of Kalispell, four blocks from Hedges Elementary School. Each morning during the week, her second-grade daughter walks the short distance and joins neighborhood friends in class, and then walks home in the afternoon.

In light of preliminary proposals, Bushnell could have to change her daughter’s daily commute and drive a few blocks west to Elrod Elementary.

The Kalispell public school district is preparing to add a sixth elementary school, prompting the need to redraw the boundaries that determine where students enroll. School officials have unveiled four preliminary options that alter the five current elementary zones to make room for the new school on the south end of town. Three community forums are scheduled to discuss the proposals: Oct. 19, Oct. 23 and Oct. 26 at the Kalispell Middle School library from 6-7 p.m.

The process of rezoning the elementary district remains in the early stages, and the school board is not set to vote on the matter until early January, but the initial proposals have sparked outcry from some families that would be uprooted from their current neighborhood school.

“I’m literally four blocks from Hedges,” Bushnell said. “For my kids, it’s a straight shot.”

“It’s nine blocks to Elrod,” she added. “Nine blocks is not far, but now my kid would be crossing U.S. Highway 93. I won’t let her walk across that every day. As a parent, I couldn’t do that and feel OK.”

Bushnell said she understands that everything is in the preliminary stages and nothing has been decided, but she hopes the school district takes into account families that are naturally situated next to certain schools.

Fellow east-side resident Rebecca Linden lives right on the boundary of one of the redistricting proposals and is similarly concerned about possible changes that would separate her children’s neighborhood friends. She is also worried about the potential safety issue as more kids walk longer distances across U.S. 93.

“A lot of people bought their houses here so their kids could walk to school,” Linden said. “I realize lines have to be drawn somewhere, but there are obvious lines in Kalispell, and U.S. 93 is one of them.”

Mark Flatau, superintendent of Kalispell Public Schools, acknowledges the challenging situation for the district and its families. He said he understands concerns that parents may have with potentially rearranging boundaries and disrupting the current alignment.

Yet the school district is faced with a dilemma in the downtown area and historic heart of Kalispell. Three of the city’s five existing elementary schools are located within a relatively close proximity — Elrod, Hedges and Peterson.

All of Kalispell’s elementary schools are currently overcrowded, which spurred the creation of the new site, and now the district must try to balance enrollments at six sites while taking into account projected growth trends across the city.

“It’s like a real difficult puzzle,” Flatau said. “In a perfect world, we’d love everybody to be able to walk, but that’s not going to be possible realistically.”

Flatau said the district has tried to identify proposed zones that would make the most sense geographically and in terms of balanced student enrollment to prevent overburdened sites or more necessary changes in the near future.

“We don’t want to have to rezone again in three years,” he said.

“All of our elementary schools are crowded. We have to reduce the number of students across the board at all five schools, otherwise we haven’t accomplish anything by opening a new school.”

»»» Click here to view a map of rezoning Plan A

»»» Click here to view a map of rezoning Plan B

»»» Click here to view a map of rezoning Plan C

»»» Click here to view a map of the current district zones (a map of Plan D was not yet available)

Edgerton on the north side of Kalispell and the new elementary school on the south end will have the largest zone in terms of geographical size because those sites have the most room to grow. The downtown schools are landlocked and must stay within their current footprints. Each of the schools will receive upgrades in the coming year, but the sheer sizes of the buildings are essentially stuck, Flatau said.

“There will have to be decisions made, and one thing I’m certain of, everyone will not agree on what that plan is,” he said.

Flatau said families would still be able to request to send their children to different in-district schools for no additional charge, and if there is available space, then those petitions are frequently approved. Flatau said discussions are also underway to implement a possible one-year grandfather clause for students to continue at their current school for one year. An example would be allowing a current fourth grader to finish attendance into fifth grade at his or her current school.

While debate over the rezoning commences, the new elementary school on the south of town continues to emerge. Construction crews are on schedule for completion in the fall of 2018.

Flatau announced that Merisa Murray was selected to be the school’s first principal. Murray joined Kalispell Public Schools in 2007, serving as the assistant principal at Edgerton Elementary where she has been the principal the past five years. She was a classroom teacher in the Evergreen School District prior to that.

“Merisa will do a great job in providing leadership in the opening of our newest elementary school and being involved in decisions related to the new school,” Flatau said.

Flatau said he is recommending Jen Stein to fill the principal position at Edgerton Elementary. Stein has served as the school’s assistant principal the last four years. Edgerton, once it’s reduced in size with rezoning, will not require an assistant principal in the future, Flatau said.

For more information about the proposed rezoning boundaries, visit http://www.sd5.k12.mt.us.

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