Population boom dominates schools in the West

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Belgrade, Mont. Almost every classroom at Story Creek Elementary School offers sweeping views of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains that surround the Gallatin Valley here in southwest Montana.

But on a recent spring morning, most teachers kept the roller blinds in their classrooms low, hoping to focus the students’ attention away from the nearly non-stop construction going on nearby.

Laurie Degenhart, principal of Story Creek, which opened a new campus last August, surveyed the sunny landscape of a second-grade classroom overlooking a rapidly fading farmland. Bulldozers and dump trucks were paving the way for an estimated 7,000 homes that would be filled with families.

“Where are we going to put all these kids?” She muttered to herself.

Over the past decade, enrollment in Belgrade and the other 15 school districts in Gallatin County, which includes Bozeman, has increased by 21 percent to 14,162 students as of October—dramatically outstripping statewide growth of just 4 percent at that time. Higher enrollment comes with some benefits: More students means more government funding to hire more teachers, and new homeowners pay taxes to help build new schools, like Story Creek.

But there is a new headache.

In Bozeman and other small towns like it across the West, the population is exploding faster than the schools can keep up. Development in Cedar City, Utah, and the surrounding county quickly dispatched the local school board to approve changes to attendance limits and ease some overcrowding in high-growth neighborhoods. An Idaho nonprofit group has identified Twin Falls — where student enrollment is expected to rise an additional 17 percent through the end of this decade — as a potential growth market for new charter schools. In Carlsbad, New Mexico, voters approved $80 million for new schools in 2019, and school officials may return to the polls next year for additional cash as Southeast New Mexico’s booming economy continues to attract new people.

The 2020 census shows that the US population has grown at the slowest pace since the 1930s

Once a mostly rural county known as the quiet outdoor paradise, Gallatin has seen the population rise by nearly a third in a decade, to nearly 120,000 in 2020, as people move to construction jobs, new technology and a better quality of life over the what it looks like. According to one principle, the epidemic “sent everything to breakneck speed.”

However, this rapid growth threatens the reputation – and sustainability – of its public schools.

School district leaders here now face the problems of large cities: large class sizes, stretched budgets, crowded school buildings and too few staff, especially those with the cultural and language skills to serve this district’s diverse student base. A tight job market has made it more difficult to hire and retain teachers, as rising housing costs — the median sale price for a single-family home in Gallatin County reached nearly $900,000 earlier this year — pushed more students and teachers alike. whether to displacement. The base salary for Bozeman teachers this school year is $43,478.

Meanwhile, a bloated population in Gallatin County and across the state is testing the will of voters to fund education. Montana spends about $12,000 per student, putting it in the bottom half of the states. It is one of only two states (the other being Mississippi) that does not allocate money to English language learners, despite the increasing numbers of these students arriving at schools every day. And this fall, a proposed ballot initiative to reduce local property taxes may complicate the task of serving the flow of students and reduce education funding for many years to come.

“Previously, we could slow down, step back and re-examine whether a child was struggling,” said Nora Martin, an elementary librarian at Bozeman School District in Montforton, which has doubled in size over the past 10 years. “Now we have to be on the same page on the same date and move everyone at the same pace. Someone will be left behind.”

Despite the growth, natives and newcomers alike refer to it as a small town. Their accounts offer a glimpse into the growing pains that have already arrived – or will soon appear – in prosperous societies across Western nations.

On a recent weekday, students rushed through the corridors of Belgrade High School, about 10 miles outside of Bozeman, to get on time to the classroom, their last class of the day.

In a basement room, three teenagers quietly waited for Susan Davis, the English language coordinator for the Belgrade School District. A world map on a wall showed two locations marked with red dots: Chihuahua and Tepic, Mexico – the birthplace of two teenagers who needed some help with their homework.

One student, Francisco, asked Davis for advice on his drawing of a pair of Air Jordans, as part of an assignment for an argumentative writing class.

He had moved to Belgrade in July 2020, when his father joined a wave of migrants and refugees looking for high-paying construction and hospitality jobs at the nearby ski resort of Big Sky. He’s also one of about 4,000 students learning English in Montana schools — a 27 percent jump in four years.

“There are a lot of people here,” Francisco said of his classes. “In Mexico, my oldest was 15. Here, it’s like 30 kids.”

In a state that does not allocate any funding for English language learners, the lack of support is showing: in 2015-2016, only about 15 percent of these students achieved proficiency on standardized tests; The number dropped dramatically the following year and improved slightly since then, to just 3 percent in 2019-20.

With no government funding for language education, the Belgrade region relies on less than $10,000 in federal funding — and whatever it can save from its local budget — to cover the salaries of Davis and two other teachers, one of whom works part-time. Davis said the trio split their time among 100 students, and it appears that more English language learners are catching up with them almost every week.

The most common need that educators like Davis hear about from families—and the one staff share in their children’s schools—is affordable housing.

The average rental price for a one-bedroom apartment in Bozeman was over $2,000 at the end of last year. Even before the pandemic, more than half of renters were considered “cost overburdened,” meaning they paid 30 percent or more of their income for housing. This makes it particularly difficult for a school district with stable funding levels to offer competitive wages.

Driving down Main Street from the Bozeman School District headquarters illustrates the problem: “Hire Now” signs at coffee shops, fast food outlets and grocery stores advertise jobs of up to $20 an hour.

“Our biggest challenge is this booming economy,” said Casey Bertram, principal of Bozeman Schools. “It’s unbelievable to find a place to rent and earn $17 an hour as a trustee. It just doesn’t add up anymore.”

Competition for new workers convinced Bertram to consider entering the rental market.

In 2018, in an effort to ease the housing affordability crisis, Bozeman approved a “total zoning” policy that requires builders to include affordable homes in their projects or pay a fee. But the Montana legislature voted last year to ban that subdivision, prompting Bertram to consider incentives to entice developers to work with the area and build housing for teachers.

“To get into a school district in affordable housing — five years ago, that would be crazy,” Bertram said. “And now we’re meeting with the developers to figure out a way forward.”

The skyrocketing cost of housing throughout Gallatin County has also led to high rates of homelessness.

Over the past decade, the number of nonresidential students attending Montana schools has more than tripled, to 4,700 as of last year. But Gallatin County – unlike large urban centers with a long history of providing emergency housing – has no shelter for homeless youth and only one shelter for families.

In Belgrade, Superintendent Godfrey Saunders said at least three of his district’s teachers have been homeless this school year.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “We are also facing more and more unaccompanied young people. They are just alone. In a country like ours, this should never happen.”

But families continue to arrive in Belgrade, whether or not they can afford housing.

Saunders has already begun looking for more land to build another elementary school to accommodate those families, and possibly a second middle school.

To build the new campus for Story Creek Elementary School, the district paid $475,000 for 20 acres three years ago. Saunders said a similar deal now amounts to $2.5 million. “It’s mind boggling.”

In 2015, state lawmakers tried to make it easier to pay for school construction and allowed counties to collect more local property taxes. Gallatin County supervisors applauded the change, even as they wondered if taxpayers might start to rebel.

Local property taxes make up nearly a third of total funding for public schools in Montana, and Gallatin County voters have historically supported polling procedures that pay for basic neighborhood operations and new school buildings. But with a potential constitutional initiative in the works that could cap taxes on residential property across the state, local support for tax increases may be moot.

Supporters point out that taxes for many property owners have gone up more than 30 percent over the past year and warn of an even greater increase in the future, blaming the pandemic-fueled boom in property values ​​that will lead to larger tax bills. Meanwhile, a government analysis estimates that the measure could cost schools about $84 million in funding over three years.

Supporters of the initiative have until June to collect enough signatures to put them on the ballot paper.

Regardless of whether the suffrage initiative will succeed, some young people have already made up their minds about Bozeman and her future.

At the end of a recent school day, a pair of middle school students sat in a classroom that was once the library of the area’s former high school, waiting for text messages announcing their parents’ arrival. They were students at Bozeman Online Charter School, the state’s first independent public charter school. The students, who were on the block for personal instruction or help with assignments, briefly attended a traditional middle school but didn’t like it.

“It’s hard to think,” said James, a sixth-grader.

“Yes, quite a lot of people,” agrees Cedar, also a sixth-grader. “You go through the corridors and you can’t get anywhere.”

Sidar clicked a trackpad on his laptop and developed an app that turns selfies of people into potato faces. Meanwhile, James was busy looking at the results of March Madness — for the math assignment, he said.

Both begged their parents to keep them in a remote school after only spending a few weeks in sixth grade classes. They said the crowding overwhelmed them and triggered anxiety attacks.

But they were less concerned about how the changes in Bozeman and Gallatin County would affect the region in the long run. Don’t plan to make life here.

“I don’t like it here,” Cedar said. “Unless you have a million dollars to spend on a tiny house, don’t come. If you’re already here, good luck if you stay.”

This story is about Montana schools Produced by Hechinger . Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger . newsletter.

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