Echoes of SD2's enrollment growth seen in outlying school districts

2012-10-17T00:05:00Z 2012-12-05T14:39:12Z Echoes of SD2's enrollment growth seen in outlying school districtsBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

With October here, school districts across the state are preparing to send their official enrollment counts to the state Office of Public Instruction.

And as Billings-area schools count students, they are seeing dramatic growth. Billings School District 2 is up nearly 300 students over last year, following a year that saw the same amount of growth — bringing the total to more than 600 new students in a two-year span.

But it's not just Billings proper that's seeing a rise in the student population. Enrollment in many of the communities surrounding Billings is growing, swelling elementary school classrooms already swollen by two years of active growth.

"We've gotten over a quarter bigger," said Lucas Larson, principal and superintendent of Elysian School, southwest of Billings.

Elysian grew 27 percent over the past year, bringing its enrollment to 209 students.

The growth, Larson said, is due to mostly young families moving into the Josephine Crossing and Riverview housing developments just beyond the school.

"That area is just exploding," Larson said.

Two years ago, the community voted on a $250,000 building reserve levy, which has allowed Elysian to install two portable buildings, adding four classrooms to the school.

Both buildings, which house the school's fifth through eighth grades, are full.

Larson attributes much of the growth to Billings' healthy economy and the appeal of the housing developments near the Yellowstone River. Still, he said a portion — not the majority — of the growth has come from families working the oil boom in Eastern Montana.  

Looking at the trends, he expects his school to double in size in the next five years.

That doesn't surprise Howard Sumner, a curator of real estate data for the Billings area. Some of the increase certainly can be tied directly to the oil boom in Eastern Montana and western North Dakota, he said.

But, he added, it's hard to say just how much of the child population boom is due to it.

"Yes it is, but you can't point to one specific thing," Sumner said. "You can't."

Sumner believes most of the recent growth is due to an increase in the industries that support the oil boom — such as the steel and fabrication plants in the Billings area — rather than the boom itself.

Home sales in the area are up 19 percent over this time last year, and building permits are up 81 percent.

But most telling, he said, is the increase in the county's labor force over the last year and the increase in rental units.

The number of workers in the county went up by nearly 2,000 people over the past year, and available rentals are up by 47 percent.

"Those units have become available because people have bought houses," Sumner said.

Justin Klebe believes it. Principal and superintendent of Elder Grove School, west of Billings, Klebe said his school is in the middle of a growth spurt.

"We've used up every square foot of our site right now," he said.

Elder Grove, a K-8 school, has seen a 12.5 percent growth in its student population. It's at 423 students.

"It stems from the Bakken," Klebe said.

While only a handful of his students have parents working out in the oil patch, many more have come as their parents find jobs in Billings with companies servicing the oil field.

"There's a trickle-down effect," he said.

So Elder Grove is seeking a $5 million construction bond from voters in December.

"Eventually we're going to have to build a new building," Klebe said. "Billings is moving west." 

The state has provisions to expedite funding for schools that see rapid growth. School districts receive state funding based on their enrollment. More students means more state funding.

But because of how the state set up its payment system, districts wait a full year before the increased funding catches up to the increased enrollment.

To help fill that gap, the state will release emergency funds if a district sees its enrollment grow 6 percent or more in a given year. Both Elysian and Elder Grove met that requirement.

School District 2, with 16,000 students, did not. The district's 300 new students only represent 1.8 percent growth.

And even in schools where there's been no measurable growth, leaders have still seen an influx of new students.

Independent School, northeast of Billings, expected to see a drop in its enrollment this year. Instead, the school saw 30 new students show up for class this fall, keeping enrollment at the school steady at 285 students.

"It was a little bit more than usual," said Bill Laurent, principal and superintendent of Independent.

No drop in enrollment means the school won't lose a portion of its state funding.

"The impact is 100 percent positive," Laurent said.

As with many of the schools in and around Billings, Laurent attributes some of those new students to the oil boom in Eastern Montana. Between six and 10 of the new students at the school have a parent working in the Bakken.

Similar to Independent, Blue Creek Elementary School southwest of Billings has seen its enrollment plateau.

"We have maintained over the last few years," said Kathi Rude, Blue Creek's principal and superintendent.

With the ebb and flow of students and no real place for housing expansion within the district, Blue Creek enrollment holds steady at 195, she said.

But she noted the school is starting to see students who have a parent off working in the oil field.

"This is the first year we're seeing that," she said.

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