After the housing boom comes the school boom: Some districts seeing huge growth

By: - April 29, 2023 10:51 am

Signs urge residents to support a school referendum for Laurel Public School. (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan)

Housing may be just the beginning of problems for Montana.

While the state tackles a crisis of affordable housing in the state, exacerbated by a rush of people during the COVID-19 pandemic, other signs of stress and growth are beginning to show in other areas.

More people will mean more streets, more water treatment plants, but it also is already stressing some school districts that are seeing growth. That growth isn’t confined to the seven largest cities in Montana, but the pressure is mounting in places like Laurel and Hamilton – places that are nearby those larger cities, but more affordable.

Laurel Public Schools is a perfect microcosm for some districts. Located just 14 miles from Montana’s largest city and in the state’s largest county, it has seen explosive growth that has put students in every nook and cranny of available space.

And like many school districts, many of the buildings in the Laurel school district are aging. District officials in their pitch to the community for an $88 million bond point out that one student fell partway through the floor of an elementary school. The election is Tuesday.

Dusty Eaton and Brad Doll of A&E Design, a firm with offices throughout the state, specializes in building schools and they’ve been inundated with requests, inquiries and plans from districts throughout the state —  not just from places like Missoula, Bozeman or Billings, the larger urban centers where growth has been focused.

For many districts it’s the combined pressure of new growth, old buildings and expensive construction costs. Because of labor and construction materials, remodeling has become almost as expensive as new construction, and older buildings weren’t designed for the electrical, internet and even plumbing needs of students today.

Montana tends to have a number of buildings older than many states because the cost of maintenance and construction largely falls to the local school districts. But many buildings have a life span, usually of 50 to 75 years, before needing major renovation or a new building. Many school districts experienced a building boom that followed the Baby Boom after World War II. Do the math and that means many of the schools built during that time period are approaching the end of their life cycle, which means major renovation or rebuilding.

“If districts don’t pass these levies, there is no other funding,” said Eaton.

For example, a recent bond for schools in Townsend passed by a mere three votes.

In Hamilton, most of the schools have been updated, but the middle school was built in 1926.

Lance Melton, the executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, said the challenge of growing school districts in the state is complex, not just because of the financing, but also because of demographics. While some counties and areas, for example, Bozeman, are growing rapidly, others are contracting. Overall, the number of students in the state has gradually slid, the results of an aging state population and families deciding to have one or two children rather than four or five.

In 1996, Montana schools had a high of 165,000 kids. As a percentage of the overall population, the number of school-aged kids has shrunk from 19% to 13%, even as the overall population has increased, suggesting both smaller families and older people moving to the state.

Upkeep is also a significant burden for a school district. Montana schools total 33 million square feet. At $2 per year for maintenance, that means districts have to find more than $65 million just to keep the space they have, without much state support.

“It’s so localized that it’s hard to get a state trend,” Melton said. “On top of that, there is this mad rush to get it done if you need construction because the cost and contingencies are off the chart.”

New construction costs in 2006 were $200 per square foot. Melton said today, they estimate $400 per square foot.

“In many of these large growth centers, you find that people missed the growth curve; they can no longer afford Missoula or Bozeman or Kalispell – maybe even Helena,” Melton said. “You’re priced out of the market, so you go to the next closest nearby place. So, places like Livingston and Hamilton are the next big discoveries.”

Data continues to show that sunlight and even things like the temperature of the room can contribute to a student’s learning success – or failure – and those things can also contribute to the district’s bottom line. Many of the heating and cooling systems in old buildings are aging too, and inefficient.

Eaton and Doll said that some districts are struggling to find parts to repair old mechanical systems by companies that haven’t existed for years or parts that have become obsolete.

A decade ago, the Billings Public Schools launched an all-out community campaign to update aging schools and an expanding population. The state’s largest city was notorious for killing a string of levies, small and large, especially after a bitter teacher strike a decade before that.

But with a professional public relations campaign and the support of big names in the community, Billings passed a levy of more than $120 million, which set a historic high-water mark, and bucked the trend of unsuccessful levies.

Both Doll and Eaton said that began a trend of school districts, especially larger ones, passing successful levies. Other communities saw that large levies could be successful and community pride motivated them to update their school district in a sort of community game of “keeping up with the Joneses.”

That levy success has also served as a model of what many Montana communities want: Instead of running a bond that aims to update one school or build a single new building, many communities are opting for a larger ask that either renovates or builds new buildings.

The benefits are that a district only has to make one levy ask, rather than multiple requests, which have the effect of always hitting up the taxpayers for more money.

“Most residents say, ‘I don’t want you to come back to me for another 10 years,'” Doll said.

The additional benefit is that usually the projects are large enough to touch nearly every student in the district.

“Parents are happy because every kid in the district gets something,” Eaton said.

The downside is that the cost can be “eye-popping.”

But Eaton and Doll said with construction and labor costs high, virtually any project — from a slight remodel to building new high schools — is going to be expensive. Now, part of the challenge is estimating the cost of construction in 18 to 24 months, a typical timeline for planning, bonding and then construction to begin.

“It’s nerve wracking because we still have to pin the design plans to a number,” Eaton said.

And prices are still volatile with contractors only being able to lock in prices for 30 days.

“Laurel is a perfect example of what is happening in districts. We go out and develop a plan and bring it to them. And their eyes pop out and they ask, ‘What’s Plan B?'” Doll said. “And we say, ‘This is Plan B. We looked at Plan A and it is just out of line.'”

With costs high, many districts are opting to build new schools and buildings not just for today, but for the future, which they see coming as new houses, subdivision and apartment complexes start popping up.

“A new roof or new windows isn’t going to solve a capacity issue,” Eaton said.

A&E reports that costs of construction have risen 44% in the past three years, which puts pressure on districts to consider value. In Laurel Public School’s case, the buildings, including the high school, are out of room with an expanding population. Fixing an old, at-capacity building doesn’t make as much sense. However, even with proposals to build new buildings, he said the old spaces still have value, either in repurposing the buildings or using the land.

One of the things that A&E and other architecture firms do when planning is utilize a demographer to predict where the growth will happen and how it might take place.

Districts like Laurel are unlikely to see the trend stop. The community has seen a rapid rise in population as the space between Billings to Laurel fills in with more houses and families. Described as at a “breaking point,” the district’s building are at capacity and aging. Modulars, or temporary buildings meant to house the overflow, are stacked on sites, aging as well.

“In some of those there’s not a single ray of sunlight,” Eaton said.

In other cases, kindergarteners have to walk building to building just to use the bathroom. Hamilton students have experienced water dripping from the ceiling into buckets. And, in Glendive the boiler system is so out of date a man who covers a three-state region, known as “the boiler whisperer,” has to be called to work on the geriatric mechanical system.  When the temperature drops too low, sometimes school is cancelled.

Eaton and Doll said that it’s difficult to guide the conversation away from the cost — voters and residents inevitably see the proposals as a tax increase.

“Inherently, people don’t understand how the schools and districts are funded. They don’t get it,” Eaton said. “It becomes a tax increase, rather than a value increase or a reinvestment in the community.”

“Yeah, we don’t get called in until things get really bad,” Doll said.

Fighting against taxes is just part of the battle. Because many of these buildings have been in communities for generations, there’s an idea that they’ll be fine for several more generations.

“It’s pretty tough to build something that will last 100 years. We’d love to think that,” Eaton said. “A lot of districts ask us to come in. Sometimes, we look and the buildings have good bones, so to speak, and we can help them see something they haven’t seen before — the potential.”

But even if there are good bones, there are also problems.

“Without fail the first thing we hear from districts is: We don’t have enough (electrical) outlets,” Doll said.

A rapid increase in the number of power hungry electronic devices have strained most school buildings’ electrical systems, a sometimes costly upgrade. And aging heating and cooling systems can bleed operational funds. For example, Billings Public Schools upgraded lighting in classrooms, using LED and motion-sensor lights to conserve power. Eaton said some scoffed, but the strategy saved thousands, if not millions.

“Lew Anderson (former district facilities manager in Billings) used to say, ‘Nickel and dimes, hundreds of times,'” Eaton said, as a strategy for saving.

From lights to adding insulation, Eaton said constructing new buildings aren’t the only way to help districts conserve scarce state dollars.

One of the other important lessons learned is to have the communities show their work. Eaton and Doll said after the projects are completed, it’s just as essential to have outreach to voters as it is to reach out during the levy portion of the campaign. Touring the new schools or seeing students in them often boosts community pride by showing residents what the taxpayer dollars paid for.

They saw it first hand during a tour of a new elementary school in Townsend.

“There were people there who said as they were touring that they didn’t vote for the levy, but if they would have seen it and known, they wished they could change their vote,” Eaton said.

He said as education has changed with things like laptops and the internet, buildings are among the last things to change, sometimes because of cost, and other times because the buildings have been around for so long.

“Think about how many different ways education has changed in 100 years, and we’re still in those same spaces, some of which haven’t changed,” Eaton said.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.