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County taxpayers invest heavily in education

December 28, 2018

The last decade has been one of transformation and growth for several school districts in the Flathead Valley.

Supporting these transformations are Flathead County taxpayers through approximately 6.8 million bond issue voters approved in 2013 to build a middle-school addition completed in 2015.

Each year the building gets closer to capacity and a new elementary school may become a necessity in a few years.

“Over 15, 16 years, we’ve had about 4.5 percent growth every year,” West Valley Superintendent Cal Ketchum noted. “Some years there’s a boom of 10 percent, a couple of years no change, but it’s been pretty constant at 4.5 percent,”

This year, enrollment increased by 36 students, or 6 percent.

The upward trend may continue, if the economy holds, with residential construction of single-family homes, duplexes and fourplexes planned in various projects for the area.

“Our boundaries cover West Reserve to the Kidsports area. Everything west of there, a lot of it, is in our school district,” Ketchum said, adding, “You can drive out by Three Mile and Spring Creek and see the machinery out.”

“We still have room - we’re not busting out at the seams - but it really depends on how fast these units are built,” Ketchum said.

With that said, the district is preparing for the need to build a new elementary in the near future and is in conversations with a landowner regarding property between Stillwater and Spring Creek according to Ketchum.

“We’re looking at another elementary school within the next three years,” Ketchum said.

KALISPELL

Elementary overcrowding and aging high school facilities were key factors leading up to the decade’s biggest bond issues in the county’s largest school district - Kalispell Public Schools.

Elementary schools and the middle school, for the most part, have maintained enrollment, or grown by 1 to 2 percent, from year to year as projected by planners during a long-term facility planning process begun in 2015.

Over 10 years, grades kindergarten through eighth grade have gained an additional 349 students - a 13 percent increase.

Overcrowding was brought to the forefront when an enrollment bubble at the kindergarten through second-grade level began to grow in the years leading up to 2012, when voters approved a 25.3 million bond issue for the elementary district and 26.5 million bond issue passed in 2017. The new school is slated to open in 2020. As part of the bond issue, the majority of Muldown Elementary will be demolished.

Enrollment and aging facilities factored into the elementary bond issue.

Muldown is the state’s largest kindergarten through fourth-grade school, with an enrollment of around 716 students this year. Over the last decade, enrollment in kindergarten through eighth grade has increased by 207 students over the past decade, a 19 percent increase.

The new elementary school project follows a 14 million in bonds for the project, with the remaining money coming from private donations and tax-increment finance district revenue. The primary reason for the high school project was aging facilities. The high school is slowly regaining students after a period of declining enrollment. Over 10 years, there are an additional 13 students, a 3 percent increase.

The Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship, which opened this year, was built through private funding and grants totaling 14 million bond issue in 2015 to fund an addition and renovation to its high school. The project was completed in 2017.

Somers Middle School will begin its $15.8 million transformation in March. Additions and renovations to the existing building were set to begin last spring, but were halted and plans scrapped when soil reports revealed problematic soils. Architects went back to the drawing board. As a result, a new building will be constructed east of the existing school. Another soil report shows the school can be built in the new location with stone column foundation reinforcement, according to Somers-Lakeside Superintendent Joe Price.

Elements of the original plan are incorporated in the new design, but in a tighter, two-story configuration.

The existing school will be demolished, except for about 11,300 square feet of the 1993 wing. The retained wing will not house students, as it is located on the problematic soil. It has been proposed to remodel the space into a storage facility, connecting it to the new building with a breezeway.

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

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