Student enrollment is up statewide, but dwindling numbers threaten to squeeze rural schools
MONTANA — Like rural school administrators across Montana, Terry Public Schools Superintendent Joe Krause keeps a close eye on his enrollment numbers.
The Terry district, which serves Prairie County, population 1,100, has 134 students this school year, said Krause, who’s new to the superintendent job this year. Only 31 are high schoolers.
Last year, Terry’s high school was forced to team up with neighboring Glendive to field a football team through a co-op arrangement. Excluding foreign exchange students, Terry High School’s sophomore class has just five students this school year.
“That’s like a 10-month family car trip,” Krauss said. “There’s a size where smallness loses its benefit.”
For Montana towns large and small, public schools are major employers and social hubs. In rural districts with declining populations, the threat of losing the local school to a closure or consolidation in the face of shrinking enrollment is often considered a potential death blow to the community.
According to data compiled by the state Office of Public Instruction, Montana’s student numbers are on an upswing statewide, totaling 161,691 students in the 2018-19 school year versus 153,417 at the beginning of the decade, including pupils in private schools and homeschool arrangements. However, that trend is largely driven by booming numbers in a few urban districts, even as districts in many corners of the state contend with stagnant or declining enrollment. (School administrators will tally current school year enrollment this fall, but OPI staff say combined data for 2019-20 won’t be available until winter.)
The vast majority of Montana students, 91 percent, were being educated in public schools as of last year, according to the OPI figures. Homeschooled students represent a small-but-growing share of the education picture at 3.6 percent of all Montana students last school year, up from 2.5 percent in 2005.
The bulk of Montana’s enrollment growth in recent years has been driven by three urban counties — Gallatin (Bozeman), Yellowstone (Billings), and Flathead (Kalispell) — all of which have gained more than 1,500 students since 2005. The Missoula and Helena regions have also seen enrollment growth, albeit comparatively modest.
Bozeman, Montana’s economic golden child, has seen a particular influx of students. At a county level, Bozeman-area student counts are up by more than 4,200 since 2005, representing a 37 percent increase. In 2017, Bozeman School District voters approved a $125 million bond to build a second high school.
Excluding Great Falls and Billings, the total student count in Montana counties east of the Rocky Mountains has fallen by 2,260 students, or 11 percent, since the 2004-05 school year. A few eastern Montana counties saw enrollment increases during the height of the Bakken oil boom in mid-2010 but have since reported declines.
For rural districts in agricultural towns on the state’s eastern plains, a decades-long trend toward larger farms and fewer ag families means there are fewer students to go around. Many job-scarce former timber and mining towns in western Montana face similar struggles, even with relatively robust tourism economies. For example: Philipsburg, celebrated for its revitalized Main Street, has seen enrollment in its K-12 school district drop from 204 in 2005 to 171 last year.
An exception in recent years has been Baker, the seat of Fallon County, population 3,000, near Montana’s border with North Dakota. In the K-12 school district there, enrollment during the last school year was 452, up from 389 in 2005.
That growth has felt modest at best, said Baker High School Principal Dave Breitbach. His sense is that oil development in the area has attracted new workers, some of them with families.
“It’s more the natural resources that help us, and the businesses that go with that,” Breitbach said. “It’s sure not out of the farm community anymore.”
In Terry, K-12 school enrollment has fluctuated over the past decade and a half, bouncing from 164 students in 2005 to 119 in 2008, then 159 in 2016 and 133 last school year.
The school district, Krause said, has turned to foreign exchange students to help fill seats, with exchange students accounting for seven of its 31 high schoolers this year. In addition to exposing local students to new cultures, the exchange students bring the district about $6,000 each in additional per-student funding, he said — enough in combination to cover a staffer’s salary. Exchange students help round out class sizes in small cohorts like the five-person sophomore class, too, Krause said.
“We like to have them here, and you get money for each student you have,” he said.
Given the number of younger students coming up through Terry schools, Krause also said he’s optimistic the high school will be able to field a six-man football team again when its co-op agreement with the Glendive high school expires in 2021.
Krause said there are a few families moving into Terry to commute to jobs in Glendive and Miles City, drawn by the small-town student-faculty ratio and what he described as a “Mayberry”-esque sense of safety. He hopes that will be enough to keep the district steady or maybe add a few students, but doubts that Terry will ever again see the classes it graduated in decades past.
“The days of old probably aren’t going to happen unless we get an industry here,” he said.
This story is published by Montana Free Press as part of the Long Streets Project. This work is supported in part by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation, which encourages communication on issues, trends and values of importance to Montanans.