With over 58,000 members, Flathead Electric Cooperative is second-largest energy utility in Montana. However, most people don’t give a second thought to how the electric company operates and what a “co-op” really means. In the Flathead Valley, the electric co-op’s unique setup allows the organization to funnel surplus money back into community education.
As a private, not-for-profit, Flathead Electric gives any money left over at the end of each year back to co-op members in the form of “capital credits.” However, communications and marketing supervisor Courtney Stone explained that many of those credits go unclaimed.
“There’s a lookup tool on our website that makes it really easy to see if you or your business has unclaimed capital credits,” Stone said. “Many go unclaimed because people move away, and they don’t always add a forwarding address. So, one of the wonderful benefits of being a cooperative, a community driven business model, is that we use that unclaimed money to fund education projects of significance in the community.”
Flathead Electric will distribute a total of $386,900 over the next five years to Evergreen School District, Kalispell Education Foundation, Glacier National Park Conservancy, and Conrad Mansion to fund education projects. These four organizations were selected based on a written application and in-person presentation outlining their funding proposals.
Evergreen School District
Evergreen School District will receive $57,380, renewable for five years for a total of $286,900, to fund their School Resource Officer (SRO) Program, a position that was previously in jeopardy. SROs are law enforcement officers responsible for safety and crime prevention in schools as well fostering student well-being through emergency response and education.
“The SRO might be there when parents are dropping students off in the morning or at pick-up in the afternoon,” Superintendent Laurie Barron said. “He certainly spends time walking the halls and being in large congregation areas like lunch or recess or class change. The physical presence makes a big difference. People trust the SRO and without him, they might not feel comfortable sharing possible safety concerns.”
Barron said that the presentence of an SRO these past five years has had a measurable impact on fostering a positive relationship between students and law enforcement. However, the district has spent this past year worrying about obtaining enough money to continue funding the position.
“The position was primarily funded through different grant agencies,” Barron said. “Starting next year, at the end of five years, we were going to have to fund a full 50%, with the sheriff’s department funding the other 50%. And we were unsure of how we were going to do that. The grant from Flathead Electric Cooperative is going to allow us to fund our portion.”
Stone said that Evergreen’s in-person presentation explaining the need for an SRO had a special impact on the Flathead Electric Cooperative’s evaluation committee.
“The morning that the presentations happened, Laurie Barron came in very flustered, and I asked her if she was OK,” Stone said. “It was the morning that Evergreen was on lockdown due to a threat. I told her, well, here’s your opportunity to talk about how desperately you need the school resource officer to make sure that children and educators are safe.”
Kalispell Education Foundation
Flathead Electric’s second grant of $8,000, renewable for five years for a total of $40,000, will go towards Kalispell Education Foundation’s after school tutoring programs. The tutoring initiative initially got off the ground with help from an anonymous donation, however, executive director Dorothy Drury said it now costs $18,000 per year. She said the new grant is an important step to keeping it running.
“It’s four days per week and used by five to 10 students per day,” Drury said. “For one day it doesn’t sound like much, but when you add everything all up, it ends up having 1,500 to 3,000 visits per school year. It’s really used enthusiastically by students.”
During the Kalispell Education Foundation’s in-person presentation, Drury brought a student who frequently uses the program to share her experience. Stone said this on-the-ground perspective made a difference in helping the committee understand the program’s impact.
“This student stated right off the bat that she is an athlete and misses a lot of classes, as all high school athletes do, particularly in Montana with these huge distances to drive between meets and matches,” Stone said. “She really leans on that after school program to keep the doors open for her future education.”
Glacier National Park Conservancy
The third funding recipient – Glacier National Park Conservancy – will receive $10,000 for ranger-led education programs. These programs take local students into the national park on field trips, organize ranger presentations in classrooms, and offer distance learning programs for students across the country.
“Requests from teachers and schools in the area have really increased and our goal is to be able to meet those demands,” Community Partnerships Lead Geneva Thompson said. “The other thing we are striving to do is continue to reach underserved and lower income schools, as well as work with our tribal neighbors to offer our programs there as well.”
Stone said the Conservancy’s focus on expanding field trip opportunities for local students resonated with the committee and her personally as a Flathead Valley school district parent.
“They’re really trying to level the playing field and make sure that all young Montanans have that chance,” Stone said. “It’s not often that students get to hang out with the park ranger and go snowshoeing or go on a nature hike. I feel lucky that the Conservancy does that for our local kids.”
The fourth organization receiving funding is Conrad Mansion, the preserved family estate of Charles Conrad. Executive director Britt Clark said the $10,000, renewable for five years for a total of $50,000, will expand historical tour offerings for students.
“For the first time in quite a while, we’re able to focus on our educational tours for kids and to try to get this new generation of Flathead Valley residents interested in the mansion,” Clark said. “If the kids don’t care, there’s really no point. We need to keep the mansion relevant for the young generation so that they can take charge in the future.”
Clark added that Flathead Electric expressed a special connection with the mansion due to its unique history with electricity.
“They’re particularly interested in the fact that the Conrad Mansion is one of the first, if not the first, house to be wired for electricity in the entire Flathead Valley,” Clark said. “They asked us all sorts of technical questions, such as what the funding would be used for and what our impact on the Flathead Valley is, but they also asked fun ones too – they were curious about how Charles Conrad could get electricity from so far away and stuff like that.”
This past year, the mansion hosted 1,096 students from area schools. Stone said that the committee was drawn to the mansion’s uniquely local impact.
“Not every city or town has a mansion like this that wants to talk, not just about the people who owned the mansion, but also use it as a lens to look back and understand Kalispell, and the Flathead Valley’s path forward,” Stone said. “Particularly for kids who are just not as excited about school, what could be more exciting than getting to walk through this crazy, beautiful house that you’ve never seen before and really live Montana history.”
Clark said that she hopes the funding is the first step to making the mansion into a larger support system for Flathead Valley students interested in history.
“I’ve always been a huge history buff, and I always felt that I didn’t have the resources I needed or the after-school activities I needed to cultivate my love and interest in history,” Clark said. “I don’t want kids to feel that way. I want them to know that there’s great resources here in the Flathead Valley and we’re here to help, whatever their path may be.”
All four organizations express gratitude to Flathead Electric for their funding and commitment to education.
“With all my heart, we’re so lucky to have an electric co-op in town that is truly so community focused,” Drury said. “I can’t speak highly enough of the process and how grateful I am.”
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