Anaconda is considering closing another school as enrollment in the district has dropped to its lowest ever.

The district has already closed Beaver Dam Elementary in Opportunity and Washington Elementary and Dwyer Intermediate in Anaconda.

Now, the School District 10 board of trustees has formed a committee to consider shuttering another building to combine junior high and high school students under a single roof. The committee’s task means balancing the financial needs of the district with the best interest of its students, and the proposition is already drawing concern from parents and teachers.

The committee hopes to reach a conclusion this spring and send a recommendation to the full board of trustees.

“Our district, like many other districts in Montana, has suffered declining enrollment since the closing of the smelter in 1980,” Superintendent Tom Darnell said. “We’ve suffered a reduction in the population of the county, but also a severe reduction of school-aged kids. We’ve gone from 2,500-plus kids to now just over 1,000.”

Darnell said the costs of operating schools that have empty classrooms are eating up a budget that could be spent in other places.

“We’re in a situation now: Do we operate buildings or do we maintain programs?” Darnell said. “By consolidating one building, the district could redirect close to $500,000 annually.”

MOVING KIDS

Darnell’s proposition to the committee means moving the seventh and eighth grades out of Fred Moodry Middle School to Anaconda High School, where there are eight unused classrooms. The third through fifth grades would join the sixth grade in the middle school building. The kindergarten through second grades would remain at W.K. Dwyer Elementary. He said the speculation is that the board would close Lincoln Elementary.

But this tentative plan has parents and teachers concerned. Is it a good idea to mix seventh and eighth grade students with high school students?

“I come from several different perspectives: I’m a parent, I’m a teacher and I’m the president of the teachers union,” said Carlton Nelson, who’s also a teacher at Fred Moodry and serves on the realignment committee. “There’s a big concern about the influence the high schoolers would have on the seventh and eighth graders. As a community, there’s a perception that’s not a good idea to put children at an impressionable age at the high school.”

Nelson wants the committee to consider a four-day school week. He said he’s read about a school district in Georgia that saved $800,000 annually by dropping one day of instruction every week.

OTHER OPTIONS

But a Montana Office of Public Instruction study that looked at four-day school weeks says the math wouldn’t add up for a district the size of District 10. And critics of shortened school weeks say they simply pass costs onto working parents who would have to make child-care arrangements. Nelson said he acknowledges these concerns, but thinks that all options should be considered.

Even building a new school.

“Dr. Darnell said in the meeting last week you need approximately 100 square feet per child in a school,” Nelson said. “It costs $150 a square foot to build. The option I submitted to the committee is that for somewhere around $6 million to $7 million we could build a campus. It would seem to me with the Tax Increment Finance District money we have going into our district, we could do something to that magnitude. We could have the seventh and eighth grade wings separated from the high school.”

Nelson said that he has to balance the interests of the teachers’ union with the interests of the children and the district as a whole. Closing a building means a reduction in force, which the union is against. However, continuing to cut staff to operate buildings has much the same effect.

Both Darnell and Nelson say that there needs to be a transition period, no matter the decision of the board, of at least a year. And it could happen that the committee recommends to the board that no action be taken at all.

“What we’re trying to get this committee to do is look at the options available,” the superintendent said. “Is our purpose to maintain four attendance centers, or is our purpose to provide educational programs to benefit all kids?’’

— Reach Christensen at kelley.christensen@mtstandard.com or 406-496-5572.

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