Every day, Hellgate Elementary School’s youngest students file to the cafeteria and rush through the lunch line as staff scramble to make sure every child is fed and out the door to make room for the next grade.

The K-2 building is one of three on the campus that’s pushing the limit as enrollment continues its upward trend.

Over the past eight years, enrollment in the closed K-8 elementary district on Missoula’s west side has jumped 200 students. Projections show another 200 coming to the school over the next eight years, for a grand total of 1,700 by 2023.

"There are areas in Missoula that are experiencing residential growth, but clearly Hellgate Elementary is one of the hotbed areas ... whether it be single-family housing or multiple-family housing," said Superintendent Doug Reisig. "We’re seeing, and we have experienced over the last several years, an increase in multiple-apartment units being built in our school district, simply because the cost of housing is so high for young people that it's very difficult for them to get a single-family unit so they opt for an apartment complex."

The buildings and infrastructure at Hellgate – Montana’s largest independent school district – are in good shape, but they lack extra classroom space. So the district is holding monthly community meetings to gauge what the public thinks of options for expansion.

At the Feb. 17 meeting, money became part of the discussion.

Four plans, and their estimated costs, were presented:

  • Option A: Add 24 modular classrooms to the campus ($2.85 million).
  • Option B: Add 24 permanent classrooms onto existing buildings ($4.7 million).
  • Option C: Build a new middle school (grades 7-8) on campus ($14.3 million).
  • Option D: Build a K-5 school on 11 acres off site ($20.7 million).

***

People are leaning toward Option C.

“Option A and B – I feel like that’s just putting a Band-Aid on it,” said parent Heather Harrington. “In C and D, at least in those two options they’re thinking bigger picture, long term, because growth is going to continue this way.”

Reisig favors Option C because in addition to adding classrooms it addresses other issues, such as space for physical education, a cafeteria, performing arts and vocational education.

Options A and B would simply add classroom space to the campus. Option D was an idea that came to the district from a resident; the cost is so much higher because the district would have to purchase land and build infrastructure, in addition to the cost of building a new facility.

Option C would require a new facility for grades 7-8 to be built on campus, between the administration building and the current middle school. The current K-2 building would become K-1, the current 3-5 building would become 2-3, and the current 6-8 building would become 4-6.

By taking a grade level out of each of the lower elementary buildings, the student population in each would drop from 525 and 545 to the 300s. The current middle school building would still have three grades, but it has the square footage to accommodate them, Reisig said.

The goal is for the school board to make a decision on one of the options, and whether to put a bond measure on the November 2016 ballot, at its May 9 meeting.

“There comes a time when you have to rip the Band-Aid off and face the reality that we’re a growing school system and realistically look at what’s the best, most cost-effective option,” said Kim Williams, a parent of twin second-graders.

***

November’s Missoula County Public Schools elementary district bond passed 58 percent to 42 percent, while the high school vote was much more narrow: 50 percent to 49 percent.

What some in the Hellgate Elementary district sometimes don’t realize, Reisig said, is that only MCPS' $70 million high school bond will impact their tax bill, not the $88 million elementary bond.

According to the Missoula County Elections Office, those communities that voted only for the MCPS high school bond – the Hellgate Elementary area, Lolo, Target Range, Bonner, Clinton, Potomac, Seeley Lake and Swan Valley – overwhelmingly voted against it, 62 percent to 38 percent.

"It's not a criticism of MCPS, but when you get into a high-school situation and the high school is miles away from the school district, there seems to be a disconnect sometimes in terms of ownership and family connectedness," Reisig said. "We do have a very conservative school district here. When bonds in the past have passed or mill levies have passed, the margin of victory isn’t large. So we have to do our job in terms of getting the information out that what we are looking at doing isn’t just a want, what we would like to do – these are needs for us."

Several of the most recent Hellgate Elementary bonds have passed: a $13 million bond for expansion and renovation in 2007, $1 million to purchase 23 acres to expand to 43 acres in 2001, and $4 million to build the middle school in 1991.

“I try to put myself in people's shoes who don’t have kids and just look at this as another tax they’ll have to pay,” Williams said. “I think one of the goals was to expand vocational and technical space (and room for athletics) on campus – and that’s space that can be used by the whole community.

“Every generation has a responsibility to provide for the next generation.”

Hellgate Elementary has a bonding capacity of $39 million.

Right now, the district has about $9 million outstanding on its 2007 bond. That bond issue initially had a 4 percent interest rate, but refinancing is underway to take it down to about 2 percent, "saving the taxpayers $600,000 to $700,000 over the life of that bond," Reisig said at the February meeting.

Hellgate taxpayers are also paying for the England Boulevard extension in 2007 – something the school district objected to at the time.

Option C would add about $6.43 a month to a tax bill on a $200,000 home in the district.

"All taxes are important, we know that, but on a similar home, if you were in the Missoula County Public Schools, it'd be closer to $11 or $12 a month," Reisig said.

Taxpayer impact of Hellgate Elementary district bond

Should a Hellgate Elementary district bond pass, a taxpayer in the district with a house at $200,000 market value would see the following estimated increases based on a 2.5 percent interest rate over a 20-year term.

Option Number mills Monthly tax increase Annual tax increase Hellgate's annual bill
A 5.69 $1.28 $15 $182,000
B 9.39 $2.11 $25 $301,000
C 28 $6.43 $77 $900,000
D 41 $9.30 $111 $1.3 million

***

An open landscape and Hellgate’s reputation are driving families to the area.

"The reason you really see development headed out that way is just because of land availability," said Missoula Economic Partnership President and CEO James Grunke. "There's a lot of pressure for growth in that area."

Grunke said a developer is planning to build a subdivision of about 50 homes priced between $200,000 and $250,000 in the Hellgate Elementary area.

"I assume those will be sold almost instantly," he said.

According to a study by the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in 2014, a bubble in the 20- to 29-year-old population between 2004 and 2008 is causing an increase in younger student enrollment today and will continue to do so in the future.

"We’re certainly not complaining that we have more children coming to our school, because they're the lifeblood of what drives us, but that’s where we’re seeing that development and I don’t see any sign of it stopping in the future," Reisig said.

***

More students means hiring more teachers to keep class sizes within Montana Accreditation Standards: no more than 20 students in each K-2 classroom, no more than 28 in each 3-4 classroom and no more than 30 in each 5-8 classroom.

Some classrooms are riding that line, including Whitney Eliason's 20-student second-grade class. More students on top of that would be pushing it, but “I think I could find room” she said, surveying the class.

"The easiest part for me to do is hire teachers because the University of Montana is amazing," Reisig said. "The hard part for me is I don’t know where I would put them because I'm running out of space. And now I’m robbing Peter to pay Paul, so to speak, in terms of creating space for additional classrooms ... because of the enrollment increase."

He has recently moved counselors, occupational therapists, physical therapists and Title I to make more classroom space. He was able to steal space from the K-2 music room this year for occupational and physical therapy, but OT and PT are sometimes done in the hallway – and that's far from ideal.

“Whatever we do, I want it to be done right,” said Harrington, a parent of a third-grader and second-grader, and two younger children who will eventually go to Hellgate. “If you’re going to do a job, do it right. I think it’s self-evident, anyone with two eyes and a brain can see that the growth of Missoula is coming this way, west of town. It’s geography-based and Hellgate has a fabulous reputation as a school. People want to be in this area. It’s clear they’re running out of space for these kids; it’s busting at the seams.”

The K-2 building has 525 students. It handles a lot of traffic congestion due to parents dropping off their youngsters.

The 3-5 building has been added on to seven times in the past 100 years. It currently holds the most students, 540, and is projected to have 575 next school year. Because it doesn't have a cafeteria, those students have to walk to the middle school cafeteria for lunch at 11:15 a.m. every day.

Seventh and eighth grades are the smallest, each with about 145. But bigger classes are storming through the ranks, including the biggest right now: 200 students in fourth grade.

But even as the smallest grades, seventh and eighth, are starting to bleed into the sixth-grade wing, Reisig said that's something the district wants to avoid because sixth-graders and middle-schoolers are at different stages developmentally.

***

“If anyone were just to walk the hallways or go to the cafeteria, for example, and have lunch with your child – it’s insane,” Harrington said. “There’s so many children, and there’s only so much they can do with that many children and not enough space.”

All of December, the middle school couldn't use its gym for P.E. because it was needed for performing arts. On Wednesday, the orchestra was rehearsing in the gym (a 3-year-old program that is already maxed out at 80 students, with many more sitting on a waiting list).

“Their reputation precedes them,” Harrington said of the district. “They really have the best teachers and an extraordinary administration.”

Now the educational environment and facilities need to match that talent, Williams said.

The bell rang. "Ho, ho! Here we go!" Reisig said as students streamed through the hallways.

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Reporter for the Missoulian