For many in the small rural towns surrounding Missoula, the local schools are truly the emotional center of the community. People rally behind the sports teams and see their neighbors at school-hosted events.
“The only time you see any sort of gathering of people are school activities and at church,” said Frenchtown Elementary principal Aaron Griffin.
Most agree that the schools deserve more funding and attention, but not everyone has answers for how to do that.
One way for school districts to increase their portion of state-allocated funding is to open up enrollment to out-of-district students. Some districts choose not to because it can cause overcrowding. But Frenchtown School District has found success by implementing a robust screening policy and taking students who haven’t been expelled from other schools.
They’ve been able to endure economic hardship by enrolling more than 100 more students, which has allowed them to hire popular elective and vocational teachers.
Many in Frenchtown, west of Missoula, see the K-12 school as a major driver of the population growth there over the past decade.
Jeri Delys, a member of the Frenchtown Community Council, remembers when she first moved there in 1985, it wasn’t a big deal if you got stuck behind the school bus because it didn’t make many stops.
“Now, if you get behind the bus, you’re doomed,” she said. “It stops every couple minutes. It’s amazing the growth we’ve seen.”
The town took a big economic hit when the Smurfit-Stone pulp mill closed in 2010 and laid off hundreds of workers. Randy Cline, the superintendent of the Frenchtown School District, said that the mill's closure stalled growth and caused him to get creative to keep enrollment numbers up.
The school district soon thereafter announced it would accept out-of-district students, and enrollment has grown from 1,195 in 2014 to 1,315 in 2017.
Higher enrollment means a higher portion of K-12 public education funding (called Average Number Belonging entitlements) from the state, because every high school student nets the district $7,005 while an elementary pupil brings $5,471. So, the school's current total of 108 out-of-district students means more than $600,000 in additional funding.
After the mill closed, the district had to reduce its staff by 13 positions, and Cline said that by allowing out-of-district students, they have re-hired those positions. Many of those teachers were in electives and vocational courses, which are popular with kids.
Cline said the decision to allow out-of-district students was a bit of a gamble, because some people, including school board members and parents, didn’t like how the policy affected the school the last time it was allowed.
“We didn’t want to have out-of-district students come in and make a huge change on our student population,” Cline explained. “So we came up with a policy that allows the school to screen students and determine whether they are in good standing. And we set up an appeal policy if they are denied.”
The reason many parents want to send their kids to Frenchtown is because they want a rural school district where the student population is relatively small compared to the big schools in Missoula, Cline said. Frenchtown High School was also rated the best public high school in Montana by StartClass, a school research firm. The company calculated the ranking using National Center for Education statistics on a variety of measures, including graduation rates and teacher-to-student ratios.
Most people in the district didn’t want students who had been expelled from other schools, because it caused problems the last time it was allowed, according to Cline. That’s why the district now has the screening process.
Cline said he would give some advice to any district thinking about allowing out-of-district students.
“I would say it’s a process and you don’t want to just throw your doors open,” he said. “Talk to your public, talk to your teachers and get feedback from all interested stakeholders. If your district is already overcrowded, for example, there’s not a benefit.”
Most everyone in Frenchtown agrees that the school is viewed as one of the best districts in the area, and young families are choosing to send their kids there rather than to one of the many districts in Missoula.
Longtime Frenchtown Realtor George Sherwood said people from Missoula are snapping up homes and driving up prices because they want their kids in the Frenchtown School District.
“I had a house sell recently in an hour,” he said. “If you want to put your house on the market right now, it’s going to be incredibly sought-after. And that’s because of the school.”
Frenchtown’s population doubled from 2000 to 2015, from about 880 to 1,657, according to the U.S. Census.
Carrie Ruff, the business manager and district clerk at Bonner School, said funding is a challenge for small rural districts. But when the school asked voters to approve a $346,000 bond to expand the cafeteria and increase safety, it passed.
“It’s a very supportive community,” she said.
Dale Olinger, the superintendent of the K-8 Lolo School District, said his school had an open enrollment policy about eight years ago but decided to close it due to overcrowding.
“At the time, the building was bursting at the seams,” he explained. “Back then, we had 100 more students.”
Olinger said that opening up the district to outside students would be one way for the district to gain additional Average Number Belonging entitlements, meaning more funding.
“If they were to build a new school, that would certainly be a mechanism that I would discuss as a way to help out,” Olinger said. “It’s a viable option. I don’t think it’s ever off the table.”
In Lolo, many people say the elementary and middle schools are extremely important to the community, and would like to see a new K-8 school built and the old campus become a business hub.
“I want to see us get (the school) off the highway,” said Lolo School District superintendent Dale Olinger. “I’d like to see the school under one roof and not have two campuses split. Something more appropriate.”
Radd Icenoggle, an entrepreneur who has worked in marketing for the Lolo Peak Brewery and local realtors, said his vision is to see Lolo become a mini-technology hub because there is a fiber-optic broadband cable that runs down Highway 93.
He said there are plans in the works for a new industrial park at an old gravel pit in the center of town, and he’s a proponent of trying to attract tech businesses to the current school campus if a new school gets built.
“We need to incentivize private development,” he said. “I see great potential in Lolo. Let’s build something that will create jobs that will let people live here and work here.”
Unlike Lolo, Bonner and Frenchtown, which all have schools, East Missoula lost its only elementary school in 2004 when the Missoula County Public Schools district closed Mount Jumbo School as part of a consolidation process. The school was leased to other businesses and has served as a temporary home for other schools undergoing remodel, but it hasn’t had a permanent use. Residents were sad to see it go.
Dick Ainsworth, the chairman of the East Missoula Community Council who has lived there for 20 years after growing up in Missoula, said not having it has been a detriment to the community.
“It’s just sitting there empty,” he said.