Flathead schools’ enrollment up slightly

Eight of 19 elementary districts gained in student numbers

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Enrollment in Flathead County schools is up 1 percent from last year, with 14,941 students attending public and private schools as of Oct. 1, 2012

The information was compiled from an annual enrollment count taken in October and released in a report recently completed by Flathead County Superintendent of Schools Marcia Sheffels. Other information in the report includes out-of-district attendance, expenditures and levy information.

A second enrollment count will be taken in February. The annual enrollment counts are significant for school district funding. Even slight enrollment shifts in smaller schools can impact the amount of state funding they receive. More students enrolled in a district means more state dollars for schools, Sheffels said.

There are 19 kindergarten through eighth-grade public elementary school districts in the Flathead Valley and four public high school districts.

Although Bigfork had a 5 percent enrollment increase in both its elementary and high school districts, it was not enough to receive additional state funding. The state Office of Public Instruction sets a benchmark 6 percent increase in enrollment for a district to receive additional state money. However, because Bigfork schools’ enrollment nearly met the benchmark, the state allowed the Bigfork School Board to approve general fund budget amendments using $30,000 in elementary reserves and $26,000 in high school reserves to pay for supplies, technology and maintenance costs.

Eight of the 19 elementary school districts experienced growth — and growth is not without its challenges.

West Valley’s  elementary district enrollment has maxed out the school’s current capacity, a problem the district has struggled with for years. West Valley gained 40 students compared to the October 2011 count, the biggest enrollment increase of any Flathead County school district. With a total enrollment of 525 students, West Valley School has outgrown its approximately 470-student capacity building, according to West Valley Superintendent Cal Ketchum.

“We’ve had an average 5 percent growth every year,” Ketchum said. “We don’t have any more areas for physical growth.”

Over a 10-year period, West Valley’s enrollment has increased by 55 percent.

A recently formed steering committee plans to meet at the end of January. A bond issue that would have funded an addition failed two years ago. Ketchum said the district will explore another bond request bond next year at the earliest.

West Valley isn’t the only district facing challenges. Kalispell’s elementary district has struggled to meet state accreditation standards for class size in its kindergarten through third-grade classes.

The elementary district grew marginally this year, with just 11 more students in its five schools — a 0.4 percent increase, for a total of 2,961 students. But over a 10-year-period, the kindergarten through eighth-grade district has increased by 477 students, or 19 percent.

A $3.35 million bond issue was passed last year to add eight classrooms — four apiece at Edgerton and Peterson elementary schools, a multipurpose room at Peterson and new central kitchen at Kalispell Middle School to accommodate growth in kindergarten through third grade and help the district meet state accreditation standards for class size in this age group.

The county’s other 11 elementary districts experienced slight declines in enrollment. Whitefish’s elementary district topped the list with a reduction of 15 students. However, this only represents a 1 percent decline. A total enrollment of 1,095 students was reported in the October count.

In comparison, Pleasant Valley — a one-room school — sustained a substantial decline when enrollment went down from six students to two.

Sheffels said Pleasant Valley has a remote residential population that continually shifts.

“It’s erratic,” she said. “Very rarely has the school started or ended at the same number. Each year they have to take a look and ask, ‘Should we stay open or not?’ The community is very supportive of the school, no matter the number of students, and as long as the school board and taxpayers are supportive, the school can function.”

Pleasant Valley operates on $41,332 from state and county funds and $27,902 from local funds.

Among the four high school districts, Whitefish and Columbia Falls saw a 4 percent reduction in enrollment.

For Columbia Falls High School, this means 29 fewer students; Whitefish had 22 fewer high school students.

Over a 10-year period, Whitefish High School’s enrollment has declined by 195 students, or 29 percent, for a total enrollment of 479. Voters in the high school district recently approved a $19 million renovation project, roughly 123,530 square feet of combined new construction and remodel to repair aging infrastructure.

The Kalispell high school district increased by 93 students (3 percent), and Bigfork High School District grew by 14 students (5 percent) from last year.

On the ’Net: flathead.mt.gov/schools/

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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