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School enrollment, funding a tricky equation

2011-10-31T23:57:00Z 2011-11-01T00:03:07Z School enrollment, funding a tricky equationBy ALANA LISTOE Independent Record Helena Independent Record
October 31, 2011 11:57 pm  • 

Although not overflowing with students, Warren Elementary is close to capacity.

The school, located off York Road, has a couple of seats open in every grade but second. But expected growth in the area could easily push the school to overflow status.

“We are right there but not to a point were we are turning people away,” Principal Tim McMahon said.

There are several subdivisions planned in the surrounding areas and the long-term educational planning under way in the Helena School District will address future building needs.

“We would anticipate growth to continue and move this direction,” McMahon said. “We are trying to account for the expected growth.”

Unlike the statewide trend of declining school enrollment, the number of Helena-area students in public schools has remained relatively steady for many years. But a continuing shift of students to the north Helena valley from city-center schools is continuing to pose challenges for administrators, students and families.

Helena’s total enrollment, typically around 8,000, is down slightly this year, with about 25 fewer students than last year. 

Superintendent Keith Meyer said school officials must ask themselves why there is a decrease when the birth rate is showing an increase. He’s hoping to figure out if and why students are leaving. Is the economy a factor? Are more students being home schooled? Are transfers to private schools up?

“I think we’ll find the economy is affecting us more than we know,” Meyer said. “We hear from our building administrators that families are leaving for employment.”

Crowding in the north valley

The two largest schools in the district are Rossiter with 475 and Four Georgians with 473, which is a more manageable number than it’s been in previous years, Meyer said. In 2005, Four Georgians had 525 students, and officials have worked to bring that number down steadily since. It’s also one of the schools that students must live near to attend.

It’s a similar situation at the schools in the north valley, specifically at Rossiter and Jim Darcy, where nearly 250 students are bused to other schools. Too many students and not enough room is a key issue but John Carter, the district’s support services director, says officials are analyzing how many of these students are bused because of parent choice or to attend a school where there is a Montessori program and how many are redirected by the school district.

The need for more classroom space in the north valley along with many other issues is expected to be addressed in the coming years through the educational planning recently approved by school trustees. 

The smallest elementary school is Bryant, with 244 students. But that’s not always been the case.

In 2008 and 2006, it had more students than both Jefferson and Kessler, which this year are at 256 and 250, respectively.

Helena’s two middle schools saw an increase of 53 students, with the majority at C.R. Anderson.

Since 2005, the westside middle school has had more than 1,000 students every year, with the exception of last year at 976. Helena Middle School has much lower enrollment — 676 students, about 50 fewer than in 2005. To attend C.R. Anderson, students must live within the attendance area, but that’s not the case for Helena Middle School. 

That geographic lopsidedness switches at the high-school level. There are almost 200 more students at Helena High than at Capital High, which has about 1,343 students this year.

There are 80 students this year attending Helena’s alternative high school, Project for Alternative Learning; 69 in the Access to Success project, which tries to re-engage those who have dropped out in a college environment; and 65 in Explore School, a science class for homeschoolers operated through the district in partnership with ExplorationWorks.

Students mean cash

Knowing how many students fill the classrooms is critical for budget planning since funding is directly tied to the number of students a school has. State enrollment funding is based on student counts, called Average Number Belonging, or ANB. State law this year provides $4,955 for every elementary student and $6,343 for every student in seventh grade and above. There is additional state funding based on the number of students who qualify for special education, and those identified as American Indian.

The ANB “sets the general fund budget, so every kid is very valuable to us,” said Kim Harris, business manager for Helena Public Schools.

Administrators can make a pretty good estimate about upper-grade enrollment since it tends to only fluctuate by a handful. But, it’s the number of children entering kindergarten that’s more difficult to predict. School officials often rely on birth rates and construction data to project kindergarten numbers.

The state numbers aren’t complete for this year but Madalyn Quinlan, OPI chief of staff, says the number of students attending public schools in the Treasure State has steadily decreased since 1995, when there were more than 164,000 students. Last year, there were around 141,600.

“We’ve been seeing a decline each year,” Quinlan said. Some of that was expected, she added, because the birth rate took a dip for a period. “This year we are projecting that it will flatten out or turn the corner.”

Regional mixed bag

In East Helena, enrollment is just two students down from last year, at 1,120. There are 261 students at Eastgate Elementary, which houses kindergarten and first grades. At Radley Elementary, which holds second through fifth grades, there’s 489, leaving 370 at East Valley Middle School, split between sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

In 2009, the district was forced to hire additional teaching staff because enrollment jumped by 50 students from the previous year. Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer said the increase in enrollment that year equated to more than $200,000 to the schools’ $6 million budget.

“Our trend five years ago was upward, but has stabilized in more recent years,” Whitmoyer said.

School officials are hoping that the economy improves and construction picks up for a handful of planned subdivisions, he added.

In Boulder, about 30 miles south of Helena, 215 students attend Jefferson High School.

That’s essentially the same as last year, but significantly down from five years ago when there was 235 and even more so from 10 years ago when there were 299. Superintendent Jim Whealon said the population has been edging up since the big low during the 2007-08 school year, when there were 199.

Townsend schools have 663 students this year, which is down by 22 students from last year.

Townsend had a steady enrollment increase starting 1991 and peaked at 1996 with 817 students.

The break down this year is 325 in the elementary grades, 114 in seventh and eighth and 224 in high school.

In Montana City, there are 421 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The number of students has fluctuated just slightly in the past four years. In 2008 there were 415 students; 2009, 431; and 2010, 423. Fourth grade has the most with 48 students, and the smallest class this year is first grade, which has 36.

In Lincoln, enrollment has been on a downward slide since 1999, Superintendent Kathy Heisler said. That year the school had 278 students. This year there are 140.

“We are trying to (provide) an education with less resources,” she said.

The school has two fewer teaching positions this year due to a reduction in force last year.

“We don’t have families moving here that have kids,” Heisler said. “It’s tough — we are struggling.”


Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or

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