Medicine Crow Middle School

Students enter Medicine Crow Middle School on the first day of school Thursday.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

In 2013, Billings Public Schools had a crisis to solve.

Its K-8 schools were 800 students over capacity. With more than 90 classes exceeding state class size standards, the state threatened School District 2's accreditation. 

The solution involved the construction of two new middle schools and extensive elementary renovations with the help of a $122 million bond. That plan was framed out in a facilities master plan, which district officials are now revising with an eye toward a high school bond.

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Ben Steel Middle School ribbon cutting ceremony

Hundreds of students, parents, staff and faculty gather in the courtyard of Ben Steele Middle School on Thursday

High schools are in line to deal with the brunt of enrollment increases from K-8 districts that funnel into Billings, plus large middle-grade classes that helped drive the elementary crisis.

But there's not a 2013-style crisis to pitch, at least not yet. And even growth plans during that time generated critics.

Then-trustee Kathy Aragon expressed repeated concerns that the district would struggle with the ability to pay for day-to-day operating costs of new schools, with the possibility of enrollment declines resulting in the closure of schools. Her frustration peaked in 2014 with her resignation from the school board. 

Renovations have created space for about 12,200 students in grades K-8. SD2's official fall count registered 11,296 students — about 92 percent capacity, a slight decrease from last year.

It's nearly exactly at the 92.5 percent utilization recommended by Cropper GIS, the company that redrew attendance boundaries. But it's below projections that anticipated major enrollment growth. 

School capacity fluctuates across the nation. The most recent data from the National Digest of Education Statistics, dating to 2005, shows that 38 percent of schools were under-enrolled by 6 to 25 percent of their capacity, and 21 percent of schools were even less full. About 22 percent of schools were near capacity, and 18 percent were significantly crowded. 

Billings' early elementary classes haven't boomed, but they haven't busted either. Other districts have seen what happens when enrollment collapses.

Casper

Enrollment has become a paramount issue in Casper, Wyoming, a four-hour car ride south of Billings. There, school district officials are weighing the potential closure of four schools after precipitous drops in elementary enrollment.

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Grant Elementary Closes

Principal Shawna Smith hugs Grant Elementary students as they pack up their belongings on the last day of school in June in Casper. The Natrona County School District is considering more building closures to account for a drop in enrollment and funding.

For years before Wyoming’s resource-based economy tanked in 2015, the Casper area had been consistently growing. State officials told the district to expect more than 7,200 elementary students in 2017, and to build new elementary schools to accommodate them. The district began work on a new elementary school and a pair of additions. With those completed, and an enrollment of about 6,100 K-8 students this year, the district has about 86 percent of its elementary seats filled.

As the Casper Star-Tribune reported in September, the district “finds itself well prepared for a future that never came to pass.”

SD2 Superintendent Terry Bouck has cited a decline in the price of oil, and the subsequent dampening of the Bakken boom, as a potential reason Billings hasn’t hit its explosive enrollment projections. But while Casper’s schools leaked students, Billings' have continued to hit steady numbers. They simply haven’t continued a boom.

There are other signs that Billings isn't in the same boat as Casper. The Wyoming town lost nearly 1,000 people between 2016 and 2017, while Billings' population ticked up. 

But child population in Billings tends to move in waves that don't necessarily correspond with overall population. Billings had a baby boom in much of the 1970s and ’80s, with growth for children up to 5 years old outpacing overall population growth. But a long decline occurred between 1985 and 1997, with the county's young child population declining by about 2,000 kids. Then a rebound occurred, with the county making up almost the whole population decline by 2009. Since then, the county's young child population has been relatively flat.

Other age brackets haven't exactly followed the trend set by the youngest children, but fluctuations still emerge. High-school aged children started a population decline in 1976, then rebounded in the 1990s — at least in part as children from the tail end of the ’70s and ’80s baby boom grew up. 

The most recent boom in young children is still moving through schools, but with the young child population flat for several years, it's unclear what will happen next.

Trustees won't wait for a break one way or the other. Meetings have already started for revisions to the facilities master plan. Students are already in the pipeline. And to adapt, planners are looking west. 

Coming tomorrow: How the Career Center and Daylis Stadium will likely take center stage in a new facilities plan for Billings high schools. 

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.