The new demographic study commissioned by the Billings School District 2 board shows steady but not significant growth for the area’s school-age population over the next decade.
Enrollment will increase by 5.2 percent by 2020, going from its current figure of 15,583 to 16,399 students, the study suggested. Much of that growth will come from increases in West End and midtown populations.
Using models that show the potential maximum growth, populations in the Heights, and specifically in the Alkali Creek area, also could see significant growth.
“This is the first time we’ve had a really professional demographic study done,” board chairwoman Barbara Bryan said.
The study, commissioned last summer for $40,000, looks at the student population growth across the city and includes software and training for district employees.
The company that performed the study, Davis Demographics, uses trends in local birth rates, new construction rates, past district enrollment trends and growth in residential housing, among other data, to calculate its figures.
As such, the further out the study goes, the more unreliable the numbers in the study become.
Still, the estimates are important for giving the district a good idea of what it can expect as Billings grows, said David Kaitz, the study’s project manager.
“It gives you a much better vision of the future,” he said.
It also means the study will have to be revised each year when new figures become available to the district.
“This (study) needs to be updated annually,” said Greg Davis, president of Davis Demographics.
District employees trained on the software will be in charge of doing that.
With the findings in hand, the board will begin looking at redrawing school boundaries within the district.
As Billings’ population moved west over the past decade, more students have had to be bused to schools with openings rather than to schools nearest their homes.
That increased busing in the district has placed West End students in schools closer to midtown because of the space shortages at the schools near their neighborhoods.
“It was a Band-Aid,” Superintendent Keith Beeman said. “It took care of the needs at that moment.”
With the study now in place, the district has the information it needs to redraw boundaries to better fit where its students live.
The new data will help the board decide on what the “rational attendance area” is for each school, Beeman said.
What it won’t lead to is a new school on the West End.
Bryan said the board will keep it open as possibility. However, she doesn’t think the district can justify spending to build and support a new school when enrollment figures are only projected over the next decade to climb 5 percent — and 4 percent in the elementary schools.
The district owns a piece of property known as the Cottonwood site west of Shiloh Road. It was purchased from the city a few years ago for $100,000 with the deal that if the district didn’t build on it in 10 years, the city would buy it back for the same price.
“That whole thing needs to be looked at,” Bryan said.
But she can’t see building something new when the district struggles to maintain the buildings it has.
The study is a piece of a new movement in the district to plan better for its future in terms of how it cares for facilities and manages its students.
Like with the potential redrawing of school boundaries, the move toward more strategic planning will lead to change, Beeman said.
“Change can be exciting and it can be scary,” he said. “We want it to be as comfortable as possible.”