A bedroom community has its advantages and disadvantages. For Florence residents, it’s a short commute to where the jobs are in Missoula, but with all the benefits of living in the country.
Then there’s the problem of paying for schools to accommodate the children of all those commuters.
Last week, Florence-Carlton school district asked citizens for the second time this year for nearly $8 million to build a new school and retrofit the old one. For a second time voters said no.
Nearly $6 million of that bond would have paid for a new K-5 elementary school, with the remainder going to remodel the existing elementary school to serve junior high and high school students. Like a similar bond issue offered in May, Florence voters turned down this request by a 2-1 margin.
In the past decade, the Florence-Carlton school district’s student population has jumped 44 percent—about the same increase in Ravalli County’s population in that same time period. Student population stands at 950 and is predicted to grow next school year when 86 freshmen take the place of the 53 seniors graduating next spring.
Superintendent Steve Gaub says the school board has limited options for accommodating the growing student body until the day comes when voters agree to build a new school, none particularly appealing: Elementary class sizes may increase, and the board might have to buy temporary modular buildings for the short term. “The problem is they’re real expensive and not real long-lived,” says Gaub.
Gaub is reluctant to discuss other options at such an early date and without public participation.
Florence property owners are still paying off a 20-year, $2.5 million bond approved by voters in 1991—about the time Florence’s population began to rise. Though the district was able to refinance that bond at a lower interest rate, property owners appear unwilling to take on further debt.
Florence’s school woes are further compounded by the fact that the unincorporated town lies in two counties. Sixty percent of the town is in fast-growing, no-planning Ravalli County; 40 percent is in Missoula County, where a comprehensive plan has been in effect for nearly three decades. In recent years, large tracts of land, mostly on the Ravalli County side, have been subdivided, where new homes have been sprouting. With so many new homes, Missoula’s stronger economy, the lack of planning in Ravalli County and a new four-lane highway to facilitate commuting, Gaub anticipates continued growth and an ever-pressing need for a new elementary school. But voters in Florence shouldn’t expect another school bond issue until at least next year, he says. Meanwhile, the teachers and students will have to make do.