Kalispell School District Fields Input on Elementary Rezoning

School officials revising boundary proposals after community meetings, surveys

By Dillon Tabish
Students enjoy breakfast at Hedges Elementary in Kalispell on May 19, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Kalispell school officials gathered input from more than 100 parents at three community meetings over the last few weeks in an effort to craft new boundaries for the city’s public elementary schools.

The Kalispell school district is preparing to add a sixth elementary school, prompting the need to redraw the zones that determine where students enroll. School officials unveiled four preliminary options that alter the five current elementary zones to make room for the new school on the south end of town, which is slated to open in fall 2018.

The initial proposals, which will be altered into one or two new alternatives in the coming weeks, have sparked outcry among some parents whose children could have to uproot from their current neighborhood school. The criticism has centered on the various geographic changes within the proposed boundaries, but questions have also emerged about transportation and other ripple effects, such as demographic shifts.

The four initial options are published on the school district’s website, and school officials are asking residents to fill out an online survey about the proposals.

Mark Flatau, superintendent of Kalispell Public Schools, said the district will collect the survey results, as well as input from the three meetings, and devise one or two new boundary proposals that will then be considered.

“After (the public meetings) we will look for common threads from all the input,” Flatau said. “I believe with (community) input we can come up with a better plan, but it is still challenging.”

The school board will likely review the new proposals at its meetings on Nov. 14, Nov. 28 and Dec. 12. The board is slated to vote on a final boundary change at its Jan. 9 meeting.

With more than 3,000 total elementary students, Kalispell’s schools are all 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.

Parents have asked the school board to develop common-sense geographical boundaries within the respective neighborhoods, but one dilemma is particularly hampering that attempt — three of the city’s five existing elementary schools are located within a relatively close proximity: Elrod, Hedges and Peterson. The physical area around those three schools is the smallest geographically but has the highest concentration of families. Another challenging area is the Northridge neighborhood, which is densely populated with students and already split into two school zones under the current boundaries.

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

With those factors in mind, the district is trying to rearrange boundaries in the heart of Kalispell without creating imbalance, school officials say.

The district is using guiding principles to craft the boundaries, Flatau said. The principles include maximized safety involving roads and student crossings; balanced enrollments and demographic diversity; and proactively considering future growth potential.

The initial proposals would each have varying degrees of impacts: Plan A would move 56 percent of the current elementary student population; Plan B and Plan C would each impact 41 percent; and Plan D would impact 37 percent.

The last time Kalispell shifted its elementary boundaries was 1987, when the modern Edgerton was built.

The addition of the sixth elementary school also means Kalispell will slightly alter its high school boundary. Flatau said the district would likely make Idaho Street the boundary line; residents with homes north of Idaho would attend Glacier High School and those south would attend Flathead.

Once the new boundaries are established, the school district will devise a new transportation plan and most likely offer free in-district bussing with new pickup and drop-off points, Flatau said.

The new boundaries will take effect next fall.

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