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The Bozeman School District’s plans for its ninth elementary school are further away than they were before the pandemic with its K-5 enrollment still below pre-pandemic level.

The district had started discussions on when to put a bond to build school No. 9 on the ballot in January 2020, but the pandemic, and the resulting enrollment declines, have put those plans on hold.

Enrollment projections don’t show that changing soon.

“Previous to this, it looked like we would be topping out on our building capacity, it was three to four years out. And now it’s not even on our 10-year projections,” said Mike Waterman, the district’s director of business services.

The district’s K-5 enrollment bounced back this year to 3,070 from 2,892 the previous year, but not to the level it saw before the pandemic at 3,225 students. The district estimates its elementary-level enrollment is roughly where it was in 2015, two years after it opened Meadowlark Elementary School.

Waterman said the district is also predicting declines in kindergarten enrollment beginning in the 2023 school year based on birthrate declines at Bozeman Deaconess Hospital.

Starting around 2017, birthrates began to fall at the hospital, which will likely lead to smaller kindergarten enrollments when those children reach school age in 2023, Waterman said.

While the district factors in the growth within the district from people moving to the area each year, Waterman said it doesn’t offset the decreases from the declining birthrates and the declines in elementary school enrollment during the pandemic.

“We’re not going to build buildings based on projections,” Waterman said, adding the district wants to have more students in the schools before they approach voters to build a new facility.

Other enrollment projections show the ninth elementary school even further out, Waterman said.

“These are projections and obviously no one really know when things are especially volatile,” he said.

While building the next elementary school isn’t in the near future, the district already has a couple properties purchased and in mind — one near the corner of Baxter and Davis lanes and the second south of Huffine Lane in the Woodland Park subdivision.

Waterman said the decision of which property would become elementary No. 9 depends on where the enrollment growth is. He also said a decision wouldn’t be made until the school was needed.

The elementary schools’ enrollment declined by 380 students from the 2019-2020 school year to 2020-2021 school year — or roughly the size of Hawthorne Elementary.

With those declines comes a certain amount of imbalance in the district’s budget since schools run more financially efficient when they have more students in them, Waterman said.

The district wasn’t making any plans to close any buildings and was working to offset the financial impact of the enrollment declines certain elementary schools have seen, Waterman said.

Both of the middle schools saw enrollment increases with total enrollment up by 64 from last year. The district’s high school enrollment also increased by 111 students, bringing the district to an all-time high at 2,509 high school students.

Elementary No. 9, middle school No. 3 and high school No. 3 aren’t within the district’s most recent 10-year enrollment projections, according to the district.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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