Parents of students in Missoula's public elementary schools cited concerns over everything from property values and rush-hour traffic to dilapidated bridges and student safety as they reviewed suggestions for new attendance boundaries at an open house last week.
The district invited MCPS parents and community members to view and provide feedback on potential changes to the elementary attendance boundaries, which would go into effect for the 2020-21 school year after the school board votes on a final option. There is also the potential for current elementary students to be grandfathered in following any new changes.
Missoula County Public Schools' efforts to revise current boundaries seeks to level out enrollment at the nine MCPS elementary schools and reduce overcrowding at four schools: Jeannette Rankin, Lewis and Clark, Paxson and Rattlesnake elementary schools.
The Thursday open house at Russell Elementary School was the third of four sessions for parental feedback as a committee tasked with reviewing the boundaries refines its suggestions to propose to the school board on May 14.
Parents living in the current areas of those four schools, which would be most affected by the changes, made up the majority of those at Thursday’s open house.
They expressed concerns and gave feedback on a series of possible boundary adjustments presented across four maps.
Regardless of their thoughts on the individual map options, most parents, especially those with younger children, expressed a desire to grandfather kids into their current schools.
The first map, labeled “Option 1” would level all of the schools to an enrollment of 350-450 students, with the exception of Jeannette Rankin. According to a 10-year population and enrollment forecast the district commissioned by McKibben Demographic Research, the total number of students living within the Jeannette Rankin area will rise by 54 students by 2028.
Elgin Smith lives in the lower Rattlesnake area of Missoula. As the father of a first- and third-grader at Rattlesnake elementary, Smith said he’s concerned about Change Area No. 1 on the “Option 1” map, which would send students in his neighborhood to Lowell.
“The way the numbers shake out, it looks like the peak enrollment at Rattlesnake is set for next year by one more student and then it starts to decline so it seems like an unnecessary change,” Smith said, referring to the McKibben forecast.
Currently, 505 elementary students live in the Rattlesnake area and approximately 32 of those attend other schools. According to the forecast, enrollment at Rattlesnake is expected to peak in 2019-20 by one additional student. Over the next 10 years, enrollment is expected to decrease by 49 students.
Smith said that he thinks Rattlesnake and Lowell are both good schools. His biggest concern is keeping students at their neighborhood school.
The convenience of getting to school is also important to Smith, who would like his kids to be able to bike to school when they get older.
“It would be very easy for them to go ride their bikes to Rattlesnake and it's much more difficult to get to Lowell,” Smith said, citing train tracks and busier streets.
Andy Kids, the father of a kindergartner attending Lewis and Clark, said his family would be affected by Change Area No. 4 on the “Option 1” map, which would place them in the area of Russell.
Kids said that apart from his son’s desire to stay at Lewis and Clark, he was concerned the boundary changes could affect property values.
Mandy Snook, a real estate agent with Montana Land Co. and a Lewis and Clark parent who is on the boundary study committee, said she spoke with numerous realtors in Missoula. Snook reported that 90 percent of the agents with whom she spoke said the boundary changes will not significantly affect property values. However, Kids is concerned it’s more complicated.
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“It’s hard to predict five, 10 years down the road,” Kids said. “It's a complex analysis with a lot of variables and we don't even know what all the variables are.”
Some groups of neighbors also attended the open house together to express their thoughts collectively.
Stephanie Boone, Emily Harrington and Rebecca Ballantyne all live in the current area of Paxson. The three women expressed concerns over Change Area No. 13 on the “Additional potential change areas” map. The map consists of several change areas that could be combined with or replace components of map Options 1, 2 and 3.
The Change Area No. 13 suggestion would move a portion of north Paxson into the Lowell area. Paxson currently has an enrollment of 479 students, with 447 students living within the boundaries of the area. The area enrollment is forecast to increase through 2022-23 and then decline slowly to approximately the current number.
“I feel like I would be being kicked out of my neighborhood school, and sent to a school that’s not my neighborhood,” Ballantyne said.
Ben Weiss, Missoula’s bike-walk coordinator, suggested the adjustment to improve biking and walking for students. However, Boone, Harrington and Ballantyne said Change Area No. 13 leads them to worry more about student safety and transportation.
Ballantyne, whose husband works at the University of Montana, lives in the University District. To get to Lowell from her home, she would have to cross multiple streets with traffic such as Wyoming Street, in addition to the river.
Weiss’ recommendation of Change Area No. 13 takes into consideration efforts to clean up the area on the south side of Lowell; however, Ballantyne and her neighbors said that’s too far in the future.
“We would have to go over the bridge which is dilapidated and maybe, someday, it gets fixed but how far off is that?” Ballantyne said, adding concerns about crossing Broadway or having her kids bike near motels.
Additionally, Ballantyne said it would be a huge life change for her.
“I set up my life intentionally to go to this school and this junior high,” Ballantyne said. “My husband works at the university. There’s travel, commuting and he's close to our school. He can volunteer at our school, he can do parent-teacher conferences because he’s right there.”
Ballantyne said she moved to Missoula from Seattle six years ago because she wanted to live in a community with close-knit neighborhoods.
“If I lived in Seattle still, this would all be moot because you drive 20 minutes to get anywhere, but I don't live in Seattle. I live in Missoula intentionally to have this kind of life and I chose this place,” she said.
Boone also stressed the importance of neighborhood schools and added that the transition to a new school would be difficult for many students.
Parents at the open house had the option of writing their concerns and new suggestions on cards, which they placed next to each map. They also had the opportunity to draw their own boundary adjustments for consideration on maps provided.
Parents who were not able to attend the open house can view all of the maps on the district's website and suggest their own changes on a social pinpointing map.