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  Comments (1) Total Wednesday Apr. 23, 2014
Possible Canyon Closure Receives Chilly Reception
Hungry Horse residents reject closure idea, voice concerns
A crowd gathered in the gym in Hungry Horse to meet School District 6 officials who are considering closing the school due to dwindling enrollment. - Molly Priddy/Flathead Beacon
The idea of closing Canyon Elementary to help battle education budget deficits in School District 6 drew no support from a large crowd in Hungry Horse gathered Wednesday as the community rallied around their school.

People lined up to sign a petition called “Save the School, Save the Canyon,” and told district administration the value of their school should get more consideration than merely dollars and cents.

“We have a situation where we are just out of balance,” Jill Rocksund, chair of the SD 6 school board, told the crowd. “We will do all we can to keep [the school] here.”

The district is facing a deficit between $511,400 and $550,400, with up to $286,000 of that coming from the elementary schools. And since the district funding is based on enrollment numbers, a dwindling population at Canyon Elementary is not helping matters.

In 1996, Canyon had 214 students enrolled. This year, that number has dropped to 93. Currently, Ruder Elementary has 443 students and there are 440 kids at Glacier Gateway Elementary. Since the district is funded through enrollment, there is only one pot of money and individual buildings don’t receive individual funding, Mike Nicosia, superintendent of Columbia Falls schools, said.

“We’re here tonight because over a lot of years enrollment at Canyon Elementary has dropped significantly,” Nicosia said. “There’s very little if anything we can do to increase the money that’s available to fund our K-5 buildings.”

Closing the school could save the district roughly $900,000, Nicosia said, which would be spent over several years to buy supplies and keep funding level while enrollment is expected to keep dropping.

SD 6 has dealt with deficits in 13 of the past 15 years – a trend school board chairman Rocksund is tired of facing. She told the crowd filling up the school gym that there has been no definite decision about how to handle the deficit and that the Jan. 27 meeting was not an announcement of closure.

While Nicosia explained the intricacies of education funding, the crowd began chiming in with frustrations about the suggested closure and offered alternatives to consider.

Several members suggested closing the middle school in Columbia Falls and busing the kids out to Canyon. Others asked why the district didn’t simply spread the kids equally throughout the district.

The latter wouldn’t fix any problems, Nicosia said, because they would still be facing the same enrollment funding. If Canyon Elementary closed, however, the other schools could absorb the 93 students and the district would only need to add one teacher. Conversely, if a different school closed, Canyon Elementary doesn’t have the staff to absorb the higher numbers and multiple teachers and para-educators would have to be hired.

If Canyon Elementary were to close, it would result in five teacher job losses, Nicosia said. Those jobs would likely come from different schools because many teachers at Canyon have seniority and would stay on.

Nicosia offered the idea of housing grades K, 1 and 2 in Hungry Horse, which would allow the school to stay open at least on some level. Re-opening a shuttered school is very difficult, he acknowledged.

State Rep. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, voiced concern over losing the school because it is a staple and heartbeat of the community. Other than delving into the budget and cutting every ounce of fat, one option could be turning it into a charter school, she said.

“I think we can look at this budget with a fine-toothed comb,” Brown said. “I hope that in the end the school board at a very last resort would consider my verbal request that you consider Canyon Elementary a charter school within School District 6.”

Nicosia, however, took issue with the lack of funding the district receives from the state. The schools are routinely underfunded, he said, which doesn’t help with the deficit.

“They’re not keeping up their part of the bargain,” Nicosia said about the state.

There were more money-saving suggestions from the crowd over the two-and-a-half hour meeting, including a four-day school week and combining classes, but the people largely voiced concern over what would happen to the quality of their children’s education if they were bused to Columbia Falls.

Nicosia said he understood their concerns and that he is personally not a proponent of the idea of shuttering the school. The district will make budget decisions in the coming months.
On 01-30-10, Roark commented....
Whatever happened to the self reliance and independent spirit of the American people? I find it rather disturbing that all these people who are inciting this “chilly reception” to close down a state controlled- forced taxpayer financed institution ought to check their own premises first; Do they have a right…
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