Population booms overwhelm schools in the West

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BELGRADE, Mont. — Nearly every classroom at Story Creek Elementary School offers sweeping views of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains that surround the Gallatin Valley here in southwestern Montana.

But on a recent spring morning, most teachers kept the roller shades in their classrooms down, hoping to focus students’ attention away from the nearly nonstop construction happening next door.

Lori Degenhart, principal of Story Creek, which opened a new campus last August, scanned the sunny vista from a second-grade classroom that overlooks swiftly vanishing ranch land. Bulldozers and dump trucks were clearing the way for an estimated 7,000 houses that will fill with families.

“Where will we put all those kids?” she muttered to herself.

Over the past decade, enrollment in Belgrade and the 15 other school districts in Gallatin County, which includes Bozeman, swelled by 21 percent to 14,162 students as of October — significantly outpacing the statewide growth of just 4 percent in that time. The surging enrollment comes with some benefits: More students mean more state funding to hire more teachers, and new homeowners pay taxes to help build new schools, like Story Creek.

But there are also new headaches.

In Bozeman and other small cities like it across the West, the population is exploding faster than schools can keep up. Development in Cedar City, Utah, and the surrounding county has sent the local school board scrambling to approve attendance boundary changes and relieve some of the overcrowding in high-growth neighborhoods. An Idaho nonprofit group identified Twin Falls — where student enrollment is projected to rise by an additional 17 percent through the end of this decade — as a potential growth market for new charter schools. In Carlsbad, NM, voters approved $80 million for new schools in 2019 and school officials may return to the ballot box next year for additional funds as southeastern New Mexico’s booming economy continues to draw new people.

2020 Census shows US population grew at slowest pace since the 1930s

Once a mostly rural county known as a sleepy outdoor paradise, Gallatin saw the number of residents rise by nearly a third in a decade, to almost 120,000 in 2020, as people relocated for new construction and tech jobs and a seemingly better quality of life. And the pandemic “sent everything into hyperdrive,” according to one principal.

That rapid growth, however, threatens the reputation — and sustainability — of its public schools.

School district leaders here now grapple with big-city problems: large class sizes, stretched budgets, crowded school buildings and too few staff members, especially those with the cultural and language skills to serve this region’s diversifying student base. A tight labor market has made it even harder to hire and retain educators, as soaring housing costs — the median sales price of a single-family home in Gallatin County reached nearly $900,000 earlier this year — push more students and teachers alike into homelessness. The base salary for Bozeman teachers this school year is $43,478.

At the same time, the ballooning population in Gallatin County and across the state is testing the will of voters to fund education. Montana spends about $12,000 per student, putting it in the bottom half of states. It’s one of just two states (the other being Mississippi) that sets no money aside for English learners, despite increasing numbers of those arriving students in schools each day. And this fall, a proposed ballot initiative to cap local property taxes could complicate the task of serving an influx of students and curb education funding for many years to come.

“Before, we could slow down, step back and reexamine if a kid’s struggling,” said Nora Martin, elementary librarian for Bozeman’s Monforton school district, which is more than doubled in size over the past 10 years. “Now we have to be on the same page on the same date and move everyone along at the same pace. Someone’s gonna get left behind.”

Despite the growth, natives and newcomers alike almost universally refer to it as a small town. And their accounts offer a glimpse of the growing pains that have already arrived — or will soon — in booming communities across Western states.

On a recent weekday, students rushed through the hallways of Belgrade High School, about 10 miles outside Bozeman, to make it on time to study hall, their last class of the day.

In one basement room, three teens waited quietly for Susan Davis, the Belgrade School District’s English language coordinator. A world map hanging on one wall showed two locations marked with red dots: Chihuahua and Tepic, Mexico — the hometowns of two of the teens who needed some help with homework.

One student, Francisco, asked Davis for advice on his drawing of a pair of Air Jordans, part of an assignment for his argumentative writing class.

He’d moved to Belgrade in July 2020, when his father joined a surge of immigrants and refugees seeking high-paying construction and hospitality jobs at the nearby ski resort of Big Sky. He’s also one of nearly 4,000 students learning English in Montana’s schools — a 27 percent jump in four years.

“It’s too much people here,” Francisco said of his classes. “In Mexico, my biggest was 15. Here, it’s like 30 kids.”

In a state that earmarks no funding for English learners, the lack of support shows: In 2015-16, only about 15 percent of those students achieved proficiency on standardized exams; the number dropped the next year and has improved slightly since then, to just 3 percent in 2019-20.

With no state funding for language instruction, the Belgrade district relies on less than $10,000 in federal funding — and whatever it can spare from its local budget — to cover the salaries for Davis and two other teachers, one of whom is part time. The trio divide their time among 100 students, and more English learners seem to enroll almost every week, Davis said.

The most common need that educators like Davis hear about from families — and one shared by the staff members at their children’s schools — is affordable housing.

The average rental price for a one-bedroom apartment in Bozeman hit more than $2,000 at the close of last year. And even before the pandemic, more than half of renters were considered “cost-burdened,” meaning they paid 30 percent or more of their income for housing. That makes it particularly hard for a school district with fixed funding levels to offer competitive wages.

A drive down Main Street from the Bozeman school district’s headquarters illustrates the problem: “Now hiring” signs at cafes, fast-food joints and grocery stores advertise jobs paying up to $20 an hour.

“Our biggest challenge is this booming economy,” said Casey Bertram, Bozeman schools superintendent. “It’s just unreasonable to find a place to rent and make $17 an hour as a custodian. It just doesn’t add up anymore.”

The competition for new workers has convinced Bertram to consider entering the rental market.

In 2018, in an attempt to ease the housing affordability crisis, Bozeman approved an “inclusionary zoning” policy that required builders to include affordable homes in their developments or pay a fee. But the Montana Legislature last year voted to consider ban that zoning, prompting Bertram to incentives to entice developers to work with the district and build teacher housing.

“A school district getting into the affordable housing business — five years ago, that would be crazy,” Bertram said. “And now we’re meeting with developers to figure out a path forward.”

The skyrocketing cost of housing across Gallatin County has also fueled a rise in homelessness.

Over the past decade, the number of unhoused students attending Montana schools more than tripled, reaching 4,700 as of last year. But Gallatin County — larger urban centers with longer histories of providing emergency housing — has no unlike shelter for youth experiencing homelessness and just one shelter for families.

In Belgrade, Superintendent Godfrey Saunders said at least three of his district’s teachers were homeless this school year.

“It’s astonishing,” he said. “We’re encountering more unaccompanied youth, too. They’re just alone. In a country like ours, that should never happen.”

But families continue to arrive in Belgrade, whether or not they can afford housing.

Saunders has already started the search for more land to build another elementary school to accommodate those families, and possibly a second middle school.

To build Story Creek Elementary School’s new campus, the district paid $475,000 for 20 acres three years ago. Now, a similar lot costs $2.5 million, Saunders said. “It’s mind-boggling.”

In 2015, state lawmakers tried to make it easier to pay for school construction and allowed districts to collect more in local property taxes. Gallatin County superintendents applauded the change, even as they wondered whether taxpayers might start to revolt.

Local property taxes make up close to a third of all funding for public schools in Montana, and Gallatin County voters historically have supported ballot measures that pay for basic district operations and new school buildings. But with a possible constitutional initiative in the works that could cap taxes on residential property throughout the state, local support for increased taxes might be moot.

Proponents note that taxes for many property owners have risen by more than 30 percent over the past year and warn of a bigger increase ahead, blaming a pandemic-fueled boom in real estate values ​​that will lead to even larger tax bills. A state analysis, meanwhile, estimates the measure could cost schools about $84 million in funding over three years.

Supporters of the initiative have until June to collect enough signatures to place it on the ballot.

Regardless of whether the ballot initiative succeeds, some young people have already made up their minds about Bozeman and its future.

At the end of a recent school day, a pair of middle-schoolers sat in a classroom that was once the library for the district’s former high school, waiting for text messages announcing the arrival of their parents. They were students in the Bozeman Online Charter School, the state’s first stand-alone public charter school. The students, who were in the building for in-person instruction or help on assignments, had briefly attended a traditional middle school but didn’t like it.

“It’s hard to think,” said James, a sixth-grader.

“Yeah, way too many people,” Cedar agreed, also a sixth-grader. “You go through the hallways and can’t get anywhere.”

Cedar tapped the trackpad on his laptop, developing an app that morphs people’s selfies into faces of potatoes. James, meanwhile, was busy looking at March Madness scores — for a math assignment, he said.

Both begged their parents to keep them in remote school after spending just a few weeks in sixth-grade classrooms. Overcrowding, they said, overwhelmed them and triggered anxiety attacks.

They were less worried, though, about how the changes in Bozeman and Gallatin County would affect the area long-term. Neither planned to make a life here.

“I don’t like it here,” Cedar said. “Unless you have $1 million to drop on a tiny house, don’t come. If you’re already here, good luck if you stay.”

This story about Montana schools was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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