Walking distance, safety top concerns

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People look at maps of possible options for redrawing elementary boundary lines in Kalispell Public Schools during a forum explaining the redistricting process. (Hilary Matheson/Daily Inter Lake)

Kalispell Public Schools recently held forums to explain four elementary redistricting options as it adds a sixth elementary school to the map.

The aim of the redistricting process is to reduce overcrowding and allotting space for enrollment growth in schools located near growing residential areas.

The district has other guiding principles that, whenever possible, define boundaries along major geographical features like roads with student safety in mind; maximize transportation efficiency; keep schools within walking distance; balance demographic diversity and keep apartments and subdivisions within one school’s boundary lines.

“We know it’s not possible in every situation,” Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Mark Flatau said about achieving all the criteria across the board. “We have to do what makes the most sense.”

Flatau also noted that adjusting one boundary has a domino effect requiring subsequent changes in every school.

Walking distance and safety remained a top concern for some people at the first forum held Oct. 19. One parent from Hedges Elementary said that students should be able to safely walk to school before busing and driving are considered.

The school district is not required to bus students who live within 3 miles of a school, but courtesy routes are currently provided as many students have been displaced from their neighborhood schools due to overcrowding. Continuing courtesy routes for students who live within 3 miles of a school, but may have to cross a major highway — which happens in current boundaries — may be an option after redistricting is completed.

“Now we realize that there’s not going to be a perfect system,” Flatau said. “There’s not going to be perfect rezoning.”

After the four options were explained at the Oct. 19 forum, attendees were asked to mark their top three choices and provide written feedback.

Kalispell Public Schools Transportation Director Annie Jensen offered to look up people’s home addresses and zoom in on their location within the options. Jaclyn Baker and Jen Rohweder took up the offer. Both of their children currently attend Edgerton Elementary.

“This would split them up,” Baker said about redistricting, but added, “Change is never easy.”

Rohweder added, “If not us, then someone else would be impacted.”

Baker and Rohweder noted how redistricting would impact them in different ways.

“What works for me doesn’t work for you,” Baker said, motioning to Rohweder.

Flatau said the district is looking into a grandfather clause for students to continue at their current school for one to two years on a case-by-case basis. He gave an example of a child in fourth grade who would likely want to complete fifth grade at the same school before transitioning to Kalispell Middle School. The district will also maintain its current in-district transfer policy.

A third forum is set from 6 to 7 p.m. in the Kalispell Middle School library on Oct. 26. The public is asked to enter the building from the upper staff parking lot off of Meridian Drive.

Flatau expects that based on the input, there could be more public forums scheduled and more redistricting options established before a final decision is expected on Jan. 9.

“I would not put money necessarily on our four proposals that one will be the final one,” Flatau said.

The district’s elementary schools include Edgerton on Whitefish Stage Road; Elrod on Third Avenue West; Hedges on Fourth Avenue East; Peterson on Second Street West; Russell on West Nevada Street; and the new school on Airport Road.

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

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