Couples looking to buy their first home often consider what school they would want their kids to attend as one of their deciding factors.
It could be they want their children to attend a school with low student-to-teacher ratios, a language immersion program, or a plentiful supply of support staff.
Ultimately, most parents just want their children to get the best education available, so when it comes to purchasing a home, they’re willing to spend more on homes within certain school boundaries to make sure that happens.
For that reason, some parents of children attending Missoula County Public Schools' elementary schools are expressing concerns over how potential changes to elementary attendance boundaries could affect the value of their homes.
MCPS is in the process of redrawing elementary school attendance boundaries to balance enrollment among the district's nine elementary schools and reduce overcrowding.
Lewis and Clark, Jeannette Rankin, Paxson and Rattlesnake are the district’s most crowded schools, operating at or above 95 percent capacity. Meanwhile, Franklin, Lowell and Russell are operating below 75 percent capacity, with the ability to accept as many as 150 additional students each.
Although real estate agents and parents have mixed opinions on the ways new boundary lines may affect home values, they agree it’s hard to predict.
“It would require a great deal of study over time to determine the real and the lasting effect that it might have,” said John Brauer, the managing broker at Windermere Real Estate.
Mike Nugent, the managing broker of Berkshire Hathaway in Missoula, agreed, noting that the city has a high-quality public school system.
“Overall, most of the schools in Missoula, there aren’t such huge differences between them that a house becomes less desirable because it’s in one school area than another.”
Nugent said the low inventory of homes on the market in Missoula also means property owners shouldn’t have a hard time finding a buyer for their home, regardless of the school boundary. That’s in addition to the fact that any homeowners looking to sell could expect to do so at a high price, as the median sales price of housing in Missoula climbed 8.1 percent last year, hitting a record high of $290,000.
However, other agents like John Herring, the owner of Re/Max in Missoula, said he thinks changes to school attendance boundaries will affect property values.
“People that are looking at property, one of the first things they want to know is: ‘What school is this? Can my kid walk to school from here?’… It means a big deal for a lot of families,” Herring said
Despite the fact that Missoula has quality elementary schools across the board, real estate agents noted there will always be preferences for certain schools.
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Mandy Snook, a Realtor and Lewis and Clark parent on the boundary study advisory committee, said parents are often interested in the Paxson and the Lewis and Clark elementary schools. She factors in those preferences when she’s selling a home, but she said the narrative that “one school is better than another” in Missoula needs to change.
However, these long-held perceptions worry some homeowners who live within boundaries being considered for change.
Three of the proposed changes to attendance boundaries illustrated on maps the district created would send a portion of the students in the Lewis and Clark Elementary School area to Russell Elementary School.
Jeff Lamson lives within part of the Lewis and Clark school boundary that could potentially be rezoned to the Russell area.
Lamson, who has a kindergartner and second-grader at Lewis and Clark, shared his concerns with others in his neighborhood who collectively wrote a letter to the district.
The property owners wrote that they are worried the change could negatively affect the value and future sales and rental potential for the properties on their blocks.
Lamson looked at public and private comps and compared the days on the market for homes in a few neighborhoods. He said he found homes in the Lewis and Clark neighborhood spent less time on the market than homes within the Russell neighborhood “regardless of their condition or amenities.”
“My concern is that in the future if we do decide to sell, either being able to sell it and have a bidding war over five people instead of three,” Lamson told the Missoulian.
The group also expressed concern over the ways changes to boundaries could affect the socioeconomic makeup of each school by moving a number of low-income rentals from the Lewis and Clark area to Russell.
“They’re shifting that pocket that balances out a school like Lewis and Clark, which has more higher socioeconomic households, and it puts it into a school where there’s a higher percentage of low socioeconomic households,” said Julie McLennan, the mother of a fifth-grader at Lewis and Clark.
“On paper, it looks like they’ve achieved the goal because now, Russell has more kids attending, and Lewis and Clark has less kids attending, but it’s almost like, ‘Let’s keep that school as more of an elitist socioeconomic status and it just doesn't make sense,’” McLennan said.
The boundary study committee will still talk about the option of grandfathering current students into the elementary schools they attend. If they decide against that, Lamson said he would consider moving somewhere else in the Lewis and Clark zone.
For homeowners who are currently searching, Nugent said it’s important for people to understand that if a school is at capacity, people might get wait-listed.
“I think the school district has to do something and they have to make adjustments and ultimately, it’s certainly going to disappoint some people and make some people happy,” Nugent said.