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  Comments (9) Total Friday Apr. 18, 2014
Boarding up Your Grandkid’s School?
Commentary: Business is Personal
There's been a lot of talk in the Columbia Falls and Bad Rock Canyon area about the potential closing of Canyon Elementary School.

While some may feel like celebrating because they object to public education or public funding of education, most of the folks I've spoken with are concerned about losing a neighborhood school.

Enrollment numbers are largely what it's about, specifically 50 to 60 kids.

Differences in building efficiency and such are noticeable, but those "missing" kids are what really make the difference because that's how most states (including Montana) figure out what education money goes where.

It's also about $4000.

$4000 is the difference between per student annual costs at Canyon vs. costs at Ruder and Glacier Gateway in CFalls. Canyon annual costs are just over $10K per student. Ruder and Glacier Gateway are approximately $5500 and $6000 respectively.

That's a tough number to chip away at, partly because it's entangled in a maze made up of falling enrollment, state education funding formulas and the fixed vs. variable costs of running a school.


The difficulty occurs when you lose one student per classroom, on average. Because funding is based on enrollment, a drop of one student in forty different classrooms means $200-300-400K in lower funding.

Despite that change in funding, a school district has to pony up the same building, same utilities, same number of teachers, buses and so on.

Because...it's just one kid per class...in every class in that school. Net result = hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Once in a while, the student losses might be grouped so that you could cut or transfer a teacher, but teachers don't make $300K per year. Many of them make less 10% of that, so cutting a teacher or two isn't enough.

The Foundation

When we cheer for the football, basketball, speech/debate and other Cats / Kats teams in Columbia Falls, we're doing so on a foundation built in a neighborhood school like Ruder, Glacier Gateway, Deer Park, Canyon Elementary or West Glacier.

The foundation is parent relationships, student relationships and family to school relationships - just like those we build as business owners, and just as valuable.

When neighborhood schools close, those things are stressed and new ones are harder to form because of Montana distances.

Increased travel distances mean fewer parents are able to show up at school events, or to volunteer when they have time. Fewer kids are able to walk to school - leaving them unable to tell their kids and grandkids about how they too walked uphill to school in both directions, just like grandpa.

The variable cost challenges are intriguing, but few seem to want to talk about it publicly.


I wanted to hear more details about the issues behind the potential closing of the Canyon school, so a few weeks ago, I invited SD6 Superintendent Michael Nicosia to Rotary in Columbia Falls to talk about the topic of his choice.

I was fairly certain that he'd choose the funding situation at the Canyon - and was not disappointed.

What's troubling to me is the brewing storm in high school funding that Nicosia describes.

CFHS is likely facing enrollment-based shortfalls over the next several years. Other districts in the valley may also be facing some very tough decisions.

Nicosia didn't suggest it but I will: Think about what happens if SD5 (Kalispell) developed enrollment-based funding issues that required that they choose between closing Flathead and closing Glacier. Talk about ugly.

So what?

What does this have to do with business? It dovetails perfectly with the discussion we've been having all year - with the exception of last week's ridiculous restaurant scenario.

It's about designing the ideal Flathead Valley economy. Having your grandkids living in the valley instead of Des Moines. Attracting and building strong businesses whose business models are sustainable so people have jobs that don't disappear and reappear as commodity prices ebb and flow.

Your kids will stay here (or return) because of the interconnected mix of family, great schools and strong career choices.

We have a full plate of work to do. Which part are you interested in working on?

Want to learn more about Mark or ask him to write about a business, operations or marketing problem? See Mark's site or contact him via email at mriffey at flatheadbeacon.com.
On 02-23-10, Mark Riffey commented....
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