Bozeman School District Bus Contract

Students load onto the buses parked outside of Emily Dickinson Elementary School in this Chronicle file photo.

Bozeman’s eight elementary schools are basically full, but school officials plan to wait until next year before asking voters for an estimated $20 million to build school No. 9.

Bozeman School Board trustees took no vote on the issue Monday night, but agreed informally it would be smarter to wait until May 2021 to put a new school on the ballot.

There are only four rooms available now where additional elementary kids could potentially fit, and music rooms are already being turned into regular classrooms, trustees said. Waiting for the 2021 election means the soonest school No. 9 could open would be the fall of 2023.

In three years the kindergarten-to-fifth-grade elementary schools would likely be “over-full,” said Steve Johnson, deputy superintendent.

But the school district’s long-range building planning committee recommended waiting, for several reasons.

The first is that officials’ top priority in this May’s school election is to ask voters to approve a “transition levy” of $1 million a year for six years. That’s to help cover the $2.3 million additional cost of running two high schools.

Gallatin High, Bozeman’s second high school, will open this fall. Even though school officials plan to tell voters they can offset the $1 million tax increase — using about $4 million expected to be left over in the construction budget after the new high school is finished — the transition levy is seen as a major priority. Without it the two high schools would likely face cuts in electives and other things students and families expect.

A second reason to wait, Johnson said, is that “we always want to know there’s an absolute need (for a new school) before we go to voters, that it’s not based on (enrollment) projections.”

Another reason to wait, said Todd Swinehart, school facilities director, is that it will allow time for an architect to look into whether Bozeman wants to try building a two-story elementary school, instead of following the same single-story design it has used for its last four elementary schools. The building repair budget earmarks spending $200,000 on architect’s services next year.

Decisions will also have to be made, Swinehart said, on whether to build the next elementary school on Baxter Lane or in the Woodland subdivision near Four Corners, both recently approved by voters for future schools.

A final reason to wait, Swinehart said, is that the $29.5 million renovation of Bozeman High School will start as soon as school lets out in June, and the staff will be busy focusing on that project for many months.

Waiting on school No. 9 means “there is some pain,” said Trustee Heide Arneson. “It is tight” already, she said, but there is a little room to accommodate more elementary students.

The problem is that the four available classrooms aren’t necessarily where the kids are, Johnson said. Meadowlark, Bozeman’s newest elementary school, is already packed with 537 students. And that’s in the northwest area where most new homes are being built.

Recently renovated Hawthorne School is packed, so its new music room had to be turned into a regular classroom. Music classes had to move into the basement, in the old lunchroom space, Johnson said.

Bozeman school enrollment this year hit a record 7,111 students from kindergarten to 12th grade. Elementary school enrollment actually decreased this year by 10 kids to 3,225 students. However, student numbers increased at Hawthorne, Hyalite, Meadowlark and Whittier schools.

If the elementary schools become too crowded, Johnson said they could repeat what was done several years ago when kindergartners were moved into empty classrooms at Sacajawea Middle School as a temporary measure. People cried when the kindergartners moved in, he said, but it worked out so well, they cried when the kindergartners had to leave.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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