In 2013, the Marion School, a small public elementary and middle school in rural Flathead County, enrolled 101 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. The school, which pulls students from in and around Marion — up to Ashley Lake and down to the borders with Lincoln and Lake counties — prided itself on its small classroom sizes and the nurturing environment it was able to offer to students.
Ten years later, the school’s enrollment has grown by 77% to 179 students, pushing the bounds of its physical space and challenging the ability of its teachers to deliver strong, individualized learning.
“The staff at Marion are going above and beyond every day,” Marion Principal and Superintendent Julia Maxwell said. “We’re getting to the point that it doesn’t matter how flexible and wonderful you are. You can’t teach in a shoebox the way you really, really want to.”
To account for unprecedented growth, the Marion School this fall is asking voters to approve an $8.2 million bond over 20 years that, if passed, will expand classroom, kitchen and restroom spaces and add security infrastructure to the campus. The bond would raise taxes by about $23 per month for a home valued at $400,000. The district mailed out approximately 1,497 ballots to voters this week, which are due by 8 p.m. on Nov. 7.
“We’re really hoping to be able to make this building and this school last and grow,” Maxwell said.
The expansion proposal, which was crafted by construction firm McKinstry, includes three additional classrooms, added restrooms (there is only one set of student restrooms at the Marion School), expanded kitchen space and the connection of the school’s two main buildings. It also includes accessibility and safety updates that will make the school A.D.A. compliant and will bolster security.
Currently, the school’s elementary and middle school classrooms are held in two separate buildings, and students and teachers need to walk outdoors to get between the two. On a day-to-day basis, middle school students must walk between the buildings to get to lunch. In addition to the unpleasant nature of traversing between buildings during the long Montana winter, Maxwell said, the current setup creates security concerns.
While visitors to the elementary school must be vetted at the front desk, no main office exists at the middle school building, making it harder to control who is allowed in and around the school. The school’s open campus adds concerns about lockdown procedures and student safety in case of an emergency.
“It can be quite scary if there was a lockdown situation when the kids were outside. Now, they’d have to run into the building, they’re more exposed. It’s a pretty big security concern,” Maxwell said. “Connecting the buildings is paramount to keep these kids inside and safe.”
In addition to addressing security risks, administrators and teachers in Marion hope that the expansion will help alleviate overcrowded classrooms and school facilities, many of which are already breaching capacity.
According to a report Maxwell presented to the school board earlier this month, Marion’s kindergarten and second grade classes are already exceeding capacity, with a handful of other grade levels not far behind.
Without expanded classroom space, the school will likely have to adopt space-saving measures, such as turning half of the gym into a classroom, splitting grade levels into different classes, or partnering with neighboring districts to offset overcrowding.
Enrollment upticks at the Marion School track with greater population growth in the Flathead Valley over the past decade — and most dramatically since the COVID-19 pandemic housing boom.
In 2013, Flathead County was home to 92,988 residents, a number that grew to 103,880 in 2019, and 108,454 in 2021. Tracking the same time frame, the Marion School enrolled 101 students in 2013; 146 students in 2019; and 157 students in 2021.
In addition to these larger patterns of growth, Maxwell pointed to demographic changes in Marion that have put added pressure on the school. While the small, unincorporated community was once home to many retirees and vacationers, it is increasingly becoming a destination for young families, many of whom were priced out of Kalispell. Maxwell calls this phenomenon “pushing Kalispell out.”
“A lot of the houses that used to be lake houses or summer houses are being sold as family houses. After COVID, everyone started wanting to start moving away from being in town. Or, we’ve got a lot of people coming in who can’t afford to live in town, so they come out here,” she said.
In addition to planning for the near future, the expansion proposal sets the stage for more distant growth should the school need to expand again. Maxwell said that in its design, McKinstry deliberately placed water and utility lines so that builders would not need to move them to add on more space down the line.
Though the need for an expansion is clear for Maxwell and her teachers, who spend every day navigating the challenges of a school bursting at its seams, the administrator understands the difficulties that lie ahead in getting a bond passed.
Voters in Whitefish earlier this month rejected a bond that would have expanded the district’s high school building ahead of projected growth. Kalispell voters in the same night voted down four levies that were set to fund technology and safety infrastructure.
“I think the people who are in the building a lot with their children, they see the need and they’re very supportive,” Maxwell said.
Other voters in the district who may not have children in the schools, and who may be concerned about rising property taxes, however, pose a challenge. Maxwell said she has invited community members to come tour the school and speak with teachers about the expansion, but that it’s been difficult to bring voters in. Right now, it seems like a “50/50 chance.”
“It’s always disappointing when a bond doesn’t pass because it’s such an arduous process,” Maxwell said. “When the bonds don’t pass, we still have to uphold those extremely high levels of education that are expected of us.”
With overcrowded classrooms and facilities, she added, upholding those levels of learning can feel impossible.
Maxwell said she believes a number of school districts in the Flathead Valley are looking to Marion as a litmus test of voters’ willingness to approve bonds for small, rural schools.
“There’s definitely a feeling of hopelessness in the valley with the amount of growth but the lack of support that we’re seeing in the recent bond failures. It’s pretty disheartening,” Maxwell said.
As the bond election nears, Maxwell hopes to emphasize the stake that the Marion community, and the Flathead Valley at large, have in the future of the school.
“It’s not just that we’re asking for additional space,” Maxwell said. “We’re asking for the community to realize that these students are their future. They’re their future coworkers and peers and healthcare workers. We, by not providing the best learning environment, are going to lower the education quality that these students could receive. So it’s really not just a student issue. It’s a whole community issue.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.