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McKinley Elementary

McKinley Elementary third-graders, from left, Cecelia Carreno, Kalli Brown, Anna Honea and Beatrice Bentler eat lunch on the first day of school on Aug. 27.

Contrary to expectations, the final enrollment tally shows the number of students attending Billings School District 2 this year did not rise, but officials say that could lend flexibility to the district in years to come.

After the count rose last year but not enough to meet projections, officials had been hopeful for a rebound driven by enthusiasm from passage of an historic school construction bond in Nov. 2013.

Instead, the second year of lower-than-expected enrollment prompted demographers to revise projections as they observe that more families are moving to outlying suburban districts or are choosing to send their children to private school.

“The wave of kids is actually still there, they’re just not in your schools,” demographer Jerome McKibben told members of a SD2 Board of Trustees committee last week.

The full board discussed the latest numbers and analysis during its regular meeting Monday night.

This year’s kindergarten class was anticipated to be the largest in recent memory and through 2022, but the count came in 7 percent lower and 50 students fewer than in 2013-14.

SD2 now has 11,189 K-8 students — down 400, or 3.3 percent, from the headcount predicted two years ago in a demographic study prepared by Cropper GIS.

High school numbers dropped by 94 students from last year to 5,076 but are still slightly above the original Cropper projection.

Total K-12 enrollment remained flat at 16,265 students, three fewer than last year.

Still, the district has grown by more than 4 percent over the past five years, by almost 700 students, and the updated forecast calls for continued, albeit more gradual, growth over the next decade.

“I’m frankly pretty excited about this revised forecast,” said SD2 bond manager Lew Anderson on Monday. “We’re planning for growth.”

Enrollment numbers deviated from the original projection, the demographers said, because Billings has seen an uptick in the proportion of households migrating to suburbs since the 2012 study.

Additionally, the number of school-aged children attending private schools rose by more than 200, they found. The jump in private education hasn’t been limited to one or two schools, but has been observed across the board.

In hindsight, the trends aren’t surprising, McKibben told the board committee last week, because a space crunch in SD2 has forced students from neighborhood schools.

Superintendent Terry Bouck said the frank portrait of district overcrowding and building maintenance backlog officials painted as they sought a $122 million bond last year could also have turned some families away from SD2.

Once elementary school building expansions are completed, boundaries are redrawn and two new middle schools are built, the trend could reverse, said Matt Cropper, president of Cropper GIS.

While fewer students means less revenue for the district, Bouck said it will lighten the load on schools that, even with current construction efforts, were expected to remain crowded.

“It’s not so much a bad-news scenario that numbers are down,” Bouck said in a recent interview. “This gives us some breathing room.”

Elementary schools are currently utilized slightly over their listed capacity, according to Cropper GIS data.

The new forecast predicts that by the time classroom expansions to Broadwater and McKinley are completed and sixth-grade students are all housed in middle schools, SD2 elementary schools will be used at 93 percent of their collective capacity.

Cropper GIS recommends 92.5 percent utilization as a target.

Middle schools, too, are now projected to be filled to between 91 and 95 percent of their capacity after the new buildings open in 2017-18.

Those figures include the continued use of 18 portable classrooms among elementary schools, Anderson said. Many of the portable spaces are decades old and could be abandoned if space permits.

“It makes me sleep well at night when we have a little wiggle room,” he said.

How the new enrollment picture might affect district finances will be clearer once the five-year budget forecast is updated next month.

“Obviously our student population is what drives the bulk of our finances,” trustee Greta Besch Moen said Monday night. “That forecast is going to need to be revised.”

The lower population does mean the district won’t have to hire as many new teachers, Bouck said.

The district’s plan to operate two additional middle schools has been built around finding budget savings each year and phasing in costs gradually — not just on enrollment revenue. Reserve funds have also been bolstered.

“We just have to be more vigilant and focused that we’re more efficient and everything we’re doing is going into the classroom,” Bouck said.

The school board also reviewed accreditation compliance numbers for school class size during its Monday meeting.

Around a quarter of K-2 classrooms are over class size limits this year, down from the peak in 2012 when almost half where crowded and about the same last year.

Of the classrooms exceeding the limit, most are over by only one or two students, School Leadership Executive Director Kathy Olson said. That wasn’t the case when SD2 was facing possible state sanctions a few years ago.

Anderson discussed new cost estimates for the Heights middle school which predict the project will come in at least $1 million above the original $29.3 million budget.

The increased costs are associated with site preparation work to the campus at the corner of Bench Boulevard and Barrett road, Anderson said. The district is paying for road upgrades and the relocation of a baseball field complex.

The district will be able to cover the elevated costs through existing bonds funds, Anderson said.