Population booms overwhelm Montana schools
BELGRADE, Mont. — Nearly 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 shades in their classrooms down, hoping to focus students’ attention away from the nearly nonstop construction happening next door.
Lori Degenhart, principal of Story Creek, which opened a new campus last August, scanned the sunny vista from a second-grade classroom that overlooks swiftly vanishing ranchland. Bulldozers and dump trucks were clearing the way for an estimated 7,000 houses that will fill with families over the next few years.
“Where will we put all those kids?” she muttered to herself.
Over the last decade, enrollment in Belgrade and the 15 other school districts in Gallatin County, which includes Bozeman, swelled by 21 percent to 14,162 students as of October — significantly outpacing the statewide growth of just 4 percent in that time. The surging enrollment comes with some benefits: More students mean more state funding to hire more teachers, and new homeowners pay taxes to help build new schools, like Story Creek.
But there are also new headaches.
“How do we staff schools if no one can afford to live here?” said Degenhart, noting the spiraling cost of housing that has made hiring educators difficult. “It’s hard when you grow so fast.”
In Bozeman and other small cities like it across the West, the population is exploding faster than schools can keep up. Once a mostly rural county known as a sleepy outdoor paradise, Gallatin saw the number of residents rise by nearly a third in a decade, to almost 120,000 in 2020, as people relocated for new construction and tech jobs and a seemingly better quality of life. And the pandemic “sent everything into hyperdrive,” according to one principal: Bozeman, a city of 53,000, added 3,211 residents between July 2020 and July 2021.
That rapid growth, however, threatens the reputation — and sustainability — of its public schools.
School district leaders there, many of whom started their careers in small-town classrooms, now grapple with big-city problems: large class sizes, stretched budgets, crowded school buildings and too few staff, especially those with the cultural and language skills to serve this region’s diversifying student base. A tight labor market has made it even harder to hire and retain educators, as soaring housing costs — the median sales price of a single-family home in Gallatin County reached nearly $900,000 earlier this year — push more students and teachers alike into homelessness.
At the same time, the ballooning 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 states. It’s one of just two states (the other being Mississippi) that sets no money aside for English learners, despite increasing numbers of those students arriving in schools each day. And this fall, a proposed ballot initiative to cap local property taxes could complicate the task of serving an influx of students and curb education funding for many years to come.
“Before, we could slow down, step back and re-examine if a kid’s struggling,” said Nora Martin, elementary librarian for Bozeman’s Monforton school district, which more than doubled in size over the past 10 years. “Now we have to be on the same page on the same date and move everyone along at the same pace. Someone’s gonna get left behind.”
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Bozeman is among dozens of small cities across the American West where population is skyrocketing, according to a Hechinger Report analysis of decennial U.S. Census Bureau data released in September 2021. Others include Cedar City, Utah; Twin Falls, Idaho; and Carlsbad, New Mexico — all of which are located in counties that saw total and childhood populations surge by double digits between 2010 and 2020.
Development in Cedar City and the surrounding county has sent the local school board scrambling to approve attendance boundary changes and relieve some of the overcrowding in high-growth neighborhoods. An Idaho nonprofit group identified Twin Falls — where student enrollment is projected to rise by an additional 17 percent through the end of this decade — as a potential growth market for new charter schools. In Carlsbad, voters approved $80 million for new schools in 2019 and school officials may return to the ballot box next year for additional funds as southeast New Mexico’s booming economy continues to draw new people.
Despite the growth in Bozeman, natives and newcomers alike almost universally refer to it as a small town. And their accounts offer a glimpse of the growing pains that have already arrived — or will soon — in booming communities across Western states.
On a recent weekday, students rushed through the hallways of Belgrade High School, about 10 miles outside Bozeman, to make it on time to study hall, their last class of the day.
In one basement room, three teens waited quietly for Susan Davis, the Belgrade School District’s English language coordinator. A world map hanging on one wall showed two locations marked with red dots: Chihuahua and Tepic, Mexico — the hometowns of two of the young men who needed some help with homework.
One student, Francisco, asked Davis for advice on his drawing of a pair of Air Jordans, part of an assignment on persuasive appeals for his argumentative writing class.
“Teacher, what can I put for ‘pathos?’ ” he asked in Spanish.
“ ‘Pathos’ is emotion, so what should I feel if I’m wearing these shoes,” Davis explained.
“You want to feel what it’s like to be the best,” wrote Francisco.
He’d moved to Belgrade in July 2020, when his father joined a surge of immigrants and refugees seeking high-paying construction and hospitality jobs in the nearby ski resort of Big Sky. He’s also one of nearly 4,000 students learning English in Montana’s schools — a 27 percent jump in four years.
“It’s too much people here,” Francisco said of his classes. “In Mexico, my biggest was 15. Here, it’s like 30 kids.”
In a state that earmarks no funding for English learners, the lack of support shows: In 2015-16, only about 15 percent of those students achieved proficiency on standardized exams; the number dropped dramatically the next year and has improved slightly since then, to just 3 percent in 2019-20.
“Unless you have $1 million to drop on a tiny house, don’t come.”
Cedar, sixth grader, Bozeman Online Charter School
With no state funding for language instruction, the Belgrade district relies on less than $10,000 in federal funding — and whatever it can spare from its local budget — to cover the salaries for Davis and two other teachers, one of whom is part time. The trio divide their time among 100 students, and more English learners seem to enroll almost every week, Davis said.
The day after study hall, Davis had to abandon her normal duties — spread across three campuses — to provide translation for a new family from Chile.
“How do I help them when I’m handling 25 other students?” she said. “I just want more people. I don’t care about tech or textbooks. We need more teachers.”
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Will Dickerson, meanwhile, envies that Belgrade can afford even those positions.
He’s the interim principal at Hyalite Elementary School in Bozeman, where about 1 in 10 of his 500 students identify as English learners. As he finishes his first year there with volunteer tutors from Montana State University and a part-time teacher’s aide on loan from the district’s central office, Dickerson this spring started sorting through resumes to hire Bozeman’s first teacher for English learners.
“The feds require that we have to meet the educational needs of all students,” he said. “We’re nowhere close to providing what we should.”
To help fill the gaps, nonprofit groups have stepped in to provide language support to students new to Bozeman.
Thrive, a social services group founded in 1986, recently hired its first Spanish-speaking parent liaison to help families navigate the Gallatin Valley schools.
“My job is definitely a new one for Bozeman,” said Isabela Romero, a bilingual immigrant from Peru who joined Thrive in that role last fall. “For lack of a better word, it’s a very white place. We don’t have many bilingual or multilingual speakers in general. In school, there’s maybe one or no Spanish speakers.”
And while Romero can help families figure out how to enroll in school or offer interpretation in parent-teacher conferences, there are limits to the support she can provide. Federal law, for example, mandates that schools arrange for a qualified interpreter in meetings to discuss special education services.
“It’s not a perfect solution,” Romero said of her job. But, “oftentimes, I’m their first and only point of help.”
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The most common need that Romero hears about from her families — and one shared by the staff at their children’s schools — is affordable housing.
The average rental price for a one-bedroom apartment in Bozeman hit more than $2,000 at the close of last year. And even before the pandemic, more than half of renters were considered “cost-burdened,” meaning they paid 30 percent or more of their income for housing. And nearly a third of renters spent more than half their income on those costs, which include utilities. That makes it particularly hard for a school district with fixed funding levels to offer competitive wages.
A drive down Main Street from the Bozeman school district’s headquarters illustrates the problem: “Now hiring” signs at cafes, fast-food joints and grocery stores advertise jobs paying up to $20 an hour.
“Our biggest challenge is this booming economy,” said Casey Bertram, Bozeman school superintendent. “It’s just unreasonable to find a place to rent and make $17 an hour as a custodian. It just doesn’t add up anymore.”
The competition for new workers has convinced Bertram to consider entering the rental market.
In 2018, in an attempt to ease the housing affordability crisis, Bozeman approved an “inclusionary zoning” policy that required builders to include affordable homes in their developments or pay a fee. But the Montana Legislature last year voted to ban that zoning, prompting Bertram to consider incentives to entice developers to work with the district and build teacher housing.
“A school district getting into the affordable housing business — five years ago, that would be crazy,” Bertram said. “And now we’re meeting with developers to figure out a path forward.”
Potential partners don’t have to drive far to find an example.
About 50 miles southwest of Bozeman, in the Big Sky School District — home to the “Biggest Skiing in America” — multimillion-dollar mansions surround Lone Peak High School and an adjacent pair of one-story triplexes. The triplexes, offered to teachers at deeply discounted rent, were built by volunteers with Habitat for Humanity in partnership with the district.
The skyrocketing cost of housing across Gallatin County has also fueled a rise in homelessness.
Over the past decade, the number of unhoused students attending Montana schools more than tripled, reaching 4,700 as of last year. But Gallatin County — unlike larger urban centers with longer histories of providing emergency housing — has no shelter for youth experiencing homelessness and just one shelter for families.
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In Belgrade, Superintendent Godfrey Saunders said at least three of his district’s teachers were homeless this school year.
“It’s astonishing,” he said. “We’re encountering more unaccompanied youth, too. They’re just alone. In a country like ours, that should never happen.”
As in other parts of Gallatin, the pace at which families are moving to Belgrade, whether or not they can afford housing, has made it difficult to fill classroom vacancies.
Degenhart, the principal at Story Creek, returned from winter break to greet 23 new kindergartners enrolled at the school. She couldn’t just divide those students among the existing kindergarten teachers: State law caps the early elementary grades at 20 students, which forced Degenhart to make a quick hire.
But Degenhart worried a quick Google search about the region’s high cost of living and low salaries — teachers in Montana earn among the lowest in the country — could dissuade candidates from applying.
“A school district getting into the affordable housing business — five years ago, that would be crazy.”
“A school district getting into the affordable housing business — five years ago, that would be crazy.” Casey Bertram, superintendent, Bozeman Public Schools
“Eight, nine years ago, I had over 100 candidates for one job — 120, easily,” she said. “Now, I get maybe 20 applications from teachers. That’s with the job open for three weeks.”
The scramble to find a new kindergarten teacher provided Degenhart with a preview of another hiring crunch to come: Belgrade will have to find room — and teachers — for all the additional kids who move into the 7,000 homes to be built within the district’s attendance boundaries.
Saunders has already started the search for more land to build another elementary school, and possibly a second middle school.
To build Story Creek, the district paid $475,000 for 20 acres three years ago. Now, a similar lot costs $2.5 million, Saunders said. “It’s mind-boggling.”
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In 2015, state lawmakers tried to make it easier to pay for school construction and allowed districts to collect more in local property taxes. Gallatin County superintendents applauded the change, even as they wondered whether taxpayers might start to revolt.
Local property taxes make up close to a third of all funding for public schools in Montana, and Gallatin County voters historically have supported ballot measures that pay for basic district operations and new school buildings. But with a possible constitutional initiative in the works that could cap taxes on residential property throughout the state, local support for increased taxes might be moot.
A Bozeman attorney and the state auditor have sponsored the measure, and proponents note taxes for many property owners have risen by more than 30 percent over the last year. They warn of a bigger increase ahead, blaming a pandemic-fueled boom in real estate values that will lead to even larger tax bills. A state analysis, meanwhile, estimates the measure could cost schools about $84 million in funding over three years.
If passed, the constitutional initiative would be most harmful to residential districts like Belgrade, which lack the business tax base of a place like Bozeman.
“I get the burden for homeowners, especially if they’re on a fixed income,” said Saunders, raising his hands like two sides of a scale. “Just to keep up with the cost of living, the debate gets pretty tough: Do you pay for meds or vote to support schools?”
Supporters of the initiative have until June to collect enough signatures to place it on the ballot.
Regardless of whether the ballot initiative succeeds, some young people have already made up their minds about Bozeman and its future.
At the end of a recent school day, a pair of middle schoolers sat in an open-space classroom that was once the library for the district’s former high school, waiting for text messages announcing the arrival of their parents. They were students in the Bozeman Online Charter School, the state’s first standalone public charter school, an online academy that has so far enrolled more than 100 kids, including some from families that preferred remote learning during Covid lockdowns. But the middle schoolers, in the building for in-person instruction or help on assignments, had their own reasons for wanting to attend a virtual charter.
“It’s hard to think,” said James, a sixth grader, of the district’s traditional middle school.
“Yeah, way too many people,” agreed Cedar, also a sixth grader. “You go through the hallways and can’t get anywhere.”
Cedar tapped the trackpad on his laptop, developing an app that morphs people’s selfies into faces of potatoes. James, meanwhile, was busy looking at March Madness scores — for a math assignment, he said.
Both begged their parents to keep them in remote school after spending just a few weeks in sixth grade classrooms. Overcrowding, they said, overwhelmed them and triggered anxiety attacks.
They were less worried, though, about how the changes in Bozeman and Gallatin County would affect the area long term. Neither planned to make a life here.
“I don’t like it here,” Cedar said. “Unless you have $1 million to drop on a tiny house, don’t come. If you’re already here, good luck if you stay.”
This story about Montana schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.