MCPS Boundary Open House file

From left to right, Stephanie Boone, Rebecca Ballantyne and Emily Harrington, all parents of students at Paxson Elementary School, talk with superintendent Mark Thane about one of the proposed attendance boundary changes during a recent open house at Russell Elementary.

After months of planning and 59 public meetings, Missoula County Public Schools trustees have finally voted on several changes to elementary attendance boundaries.

The district will adopt boundary change areas 10, 28 and 29.

The changes, effective July 1, 2019, all seek to reduce overcrowding at Jeannette Rankin Elementary by expanding the attendance areas for Russell and Chief Charlo Elementary Schools. The changes also include grandfathering procedures to allow current students and their siblings to remain at Jeannette Rankin if they choose.

All new families registering students in these areas after July 1 will attend the school designated by the new boundaries.

Although a boundary study committee reviewed boundaries for all of the district's nine elementary schools, they only recommended changes that will impact Jeannette Rankin. Committee members tabled other potential changes as recommendations for the board to consider when they begin reviewing middle and high school boundaries in the 2019-20 school year.

"We have a compelling reason to address the Southside right now,” Superintendent Mark Thane said at the Tuesday meeting.

Thane said he thinks the next boundary study committee should consider changes to other elementary attendance boundaries in concert with the middle and high school changes.

Although Jeannette Rankin, formerly known as Cold Springs Elementary, was constructed less than a year ago, it is currently the district's most crowded school. 

Each of the district's nine elementary schools has the capacity for 450 to 500 students. There are currently 600 students living in the Jeannette Rankin boundaries, with a projection to grow by another 100 students in the next 10 years.

The district chose to remodel or construct schools with the capacity for 450 to 500 students based on community feedback received after voters passed the Smart Schools 2020 construction bonds.

Missoulians expressed a desire for neighborhood elementary schools with safe walking and biking routes. However, overcrowding at four of the district's nine elementary schools has resulted in "leveling" students, or sending them to another school. It's possible for kids to live across the street from a public school but have to ride a bus to another school across town.

Although the changes will help alleviate overcrowding at Jeannette Rankin, it will be a slow transition as students and their siblings age out of the elementary schools.

Although the new grandfathering procedures will allow for younger siblings of current Jeanette Rankin students to enroll in the same school, the district will only provide transportation for grandfathered students for the next two school years.

Thane said continuing transportation for grandfathered students for the next two years will have a minimal impact on the budget since the district is already leveling 10% of the student population.

For now, he said he hopes the changes help level students more systematically.

The board approved the new changes Tuesday, although the vote was scheduled for the June 11 board meeting. At the June 11 meeting, trustees postponed voting when they discovered a mistake on a map illustrating the proposed changes. The discovery led to a lengthy discussion where some trustees expressed unease with the process and recommendations.

Although it’s been almost 10 months since the elementary boundary study process began and the district has held 59 public meetings to date, trustees had not established a time to discuss the recommended change areas prior to the vote. Their attempts to discuss changes at the last meeting were complicated by meeting protocols and rules of order.

Going forward, Thane said he would recommend that the board schedule a work session where they can freely discuss recommendations and create final options.

As the elementary boundary study neared completion, trustees, administrators and members of the boundary study committee shared areas for improvement, which they hope will inform the 2019-20 study of middle and high school boundaries.

At Tuesday's meeting, Trustee Michael Smith said he would like trustees to have a better understanding of how the undertaking will work.

Although Thane will no longer be serving as the district's superintendent when the district begins the next boundary review, he said he doesn't foresee another 50-plus meetings to reach an outcome.

"We're dealing with three middle schools and three urban high schools in that discussion," he said.

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