Outlook Edition

Growing Pains and Construction Projects Lay Ahead for Flathead Valley Schools

As the region anticipates yet another year of development, its educators wrestle with how to accommodate its increasing student population

By Denali Sagner
Whitefish High School on March 15, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

For Principal Kerry Drown, one question hangs over the future of Whitefish High School: “Where do we put all of these kids?”

Drown sits at the helm of the city’s public high school, which has seen an 18% enrollment increase over the past decade and is now pushing the limits of its building’s capacity. In recent years, the school has been forced to adopt space-saving measures, such as requiring teachers to share classrooms and wheel their supplies around on carts, as well as hosting courses in the Annex, a remote section of the old Muldown Elementary School building. The Whitefish School District is in the process of planning for a major expansion, which will likely add 24 teaching stations to help serve an additional 283 students.

“It wears on staff,” Drown said, reflecting on the overcrowding that has forced teachers to “live on carts.”

“That’s a struggle, in and of itself.”

While an influx of new residents has rattled Whitefish, pushing the limits of the city’s infrastructure, population growth has reshaped the entire Flathead Valley in recent years, creating challenges for the schools tasked with educating its children. Over the past 10 years, Flathead County’s public elementary schools have grown by 12%, adding 1,130 students, and its public high schools have grown by 11%, adding 467 students. The valley’s rapid development has tested the capacity of many schools and left teachers to manage swelling class sizes and growing stacks of papers to grade. As the region foresees further demographic changes in 2023, its educators are planning for building expansions and anticipating the growth that lays ahead for their schools.

Between 2020 and 2021, Flathead County gained 3,681 new residents, marking a 3.5% population increase and granting Kalispell the title of fastest-growing urban area in Montana. Though COVID-19 accelerated migration to the Flathead Valley, new residents have been reshaping the region and its schools for years. Between 2010 and 2020, Kalispell gained 4,631 residents, Whitefish gained 1,394, Bigfork gained 848 and Columbia Falls gained 620.

Though the most recent school expansion proposal in the Flathead Valley, the Whitefish High School project is far from the only effort to remodel public school buildings in the area in recent years. Over the past two decades, voters have passed multi-million-dollar bonds to renovate and expand school buildings in Kalispell, Columbia Falls, Whitefish, Bigfork and Somers.

Bigfork High School Principal Mark Hansen characterized growth in the Bigfork School District as a result of new residents in the communities on the north shore of Flathead Lake.

“For the most part, what we’re seeing is people moving into the area,” Hansen said. “In the last year, that’s been most of what our influx is.”

Bigfork High School’s student body has grown by 24% in the last decade, a significant increase for the smallest of the valley’s five public high schools. Due to this growth, the Montana High School Association (MHSA) Executive Board on April 12 approved a reclassification of Bigfork High School from Class B to Class A for athletics, a change that will go into effect next year. The high school will soon compete against the Flathead Valley’s other two Class A schools, Columbia Falls and Whitefish, a mark of the population shifts occurring in the south valley.

Though Hansen has observed some overpopulation issues in recent years, he said that a recent expansion to the high school has prepared the district well for its changing composition.

In the fall of 2016, voters overwhelmingly passed a $14 million bond for the renovation of Bigfork High School, which added 30,000 square feet of floor space to the building, including a new bus barn, added lockers, an improved band room and various updates to the gymnasium, library and foyer.

“Our classroom sizes have grown, which is always a challenge, especially for English teachers and history teachers,” Hansen said. However, the principal said that he is not concerned about the size of the building as it stands, noting that the district “planned for growth.”

Earlier this year, officials from the Kalispell Public Schools announced that they would initiate a long-range facility plan for the district, as the majority of its schools have reached, or will soon reach, capacity. As of August 2022, Rankin, Edgerton and Hedges Elementary Schools had all reached above 95% building capacity, Peterson Elementary had reached 77%, Elrod Elementary hit 71% and Russell Elementary climbed to 69%. The district also reported that Kalispell Middle School and Flathead and Glacier High Schools are operating at or above capacity.

For Drown, the expansion of Whitefish High School is not just about current crowding problems, but about the future of the district in the face of demographic fluctuations.

Today, students at Whitefish High School struggle to enroll in the classes they want, leaving gaps in their schedules during which they are required to leave campus. An expansion to the building would create new classrooms, opening up academic opportunities and eliminating these holes in students’ schedules. 

“I don’t want to impact the culture or the climate of the school by having part-time students,” Drown said. “The thing I want to stay away from is compromising our academic excellence.”

Yet, challenges remain for Whitefish and its neighbors, as stakeholders navigate the uphill battle of getting a bond passed by voters and the uncertainty of the region’s demography.

Though teachers and administrators see a clear need for the expansion, convincing the general population to approve the project can be a difficult task. Voters in Whitefish previously rejected two bond proposals to renovate the high school, in 2003 and 2008. Before the 2016 renovation of Bigfork High School, the district proposed two bonds in 2007 and 2008, both of which failed.

Drown also acknowledged the unpredictable nature of Whitefish and the Flathead Valley at large, which may continue to see untenable growth as new residents seek the wide-open spaces that Montana has gained a reputation for providing. While the current expansion plans for the high school will be able to accommodate a 2% growth rate for 20 years, Drown is cognizant of the fact that growth could outpace even those numbers.

“If our school is that big, at some point we may be pushing moving up a classification,” the principal said. “It’s almost as tough as predicting the weather.”