Not another closure… 

Rumors ride the Hellgate wind

On Nov. 11, Missoula County Public Schools conducted the first in a series of meetings convened to chart a plan for the district’s high schools, but a stubborn rumor—that the verdict for Hellgate High School is already in, and Hellgate is slated for closure—lingers. At a district committee meeting Oct. 26, parent Jeanne Joscelyn had asked why Hellgate was selected for closure. Superintendent Jim Clark told her that no such closure had been discussed. At the Nov. 11 High School Future meeting, Joscelyn spoke up again.

“Just a year ago, we heard rumors that Rattlesnake Middle School was going to be closed.” Rattlesnake Valley students who otherwise would have attended Rattlesnake, their neighborhood school, are now bused to Washington Middle School and C.S. Porter. “Now,” said Joscelyn, “we’re hearing rumors that Hellgate is going to be closed.”

District administrators repeated they have no plans to close Hellgate.

Hellgate is one of five district high schools. Within the city, the district high schools include three comprehensive high schools—Big Sky, Hellgate and Sentinel—and one alternative high school program at Willard School. The district also includes Seeley-Swan High School in Seeley Lake. Total high school enrollment as of Nov. 1 was 3,969.

Enrollment projections estimate that the district could lose up to 500 high school students over the next decade. Recent discussion about the projected decline, coupled with parents’ raw nerves from contentious 2004 closures at the elementary level, may account for the widespread fear that Hellgate, which has been open since 1908, could be shuttered.

Dave Severson, president of the Missoula Education Association, attended a recent committee meeting that he believes might be the source of the fear. At that meeting, Superintendent Clark discussed enrollment decline.

“I guess it was Jim Clark’s unintentional projection of worst-case-scenario that Hellgate might be on the chopping block someday, but not like two years or five years—more like 10,” said Severson, who thinks that a worried public might have heard something else: “I think the way some people heard it was, ‘Next on the chopping block is Hellgate.’”

While some parents fret that district administrators already plan to support the closure of yet another public school, the administrators are taking steps to solicit input about the high schools’ futures from both the public at large and other district employees.

Requesting public comment during ground-level discussions is new territory for the district, said Severson. While he doesn’t believe the district had banned the public from attending planning meetings in the past, district leaders had not made a concerted effort to request public input. The community’s close scrutiny of the 2004 school closures and the Montana Supreme Court’s May decision that meetings of high-ranking university officials must remain open to the public served as impetus for the district to more fully engage the public, Severson believes.

On Nov. 11, a group of about 25 district employees, including principals, teachers and counselors, kicked off the “High School Future” series with a discussion of Missoula demographics. The series—the next meeting is scheduled for Dec. 2—will last at least the rest of the school year. The district’s goal is “a vision of what we want our high schools to be,” said meeting facilitator and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Cheryl Wilson.

Larry Swanson is associate director for regional economics at the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, a regional public policy and research center at the University of Montana. Swanson told the skeptical group that increased population in Missoula and surrounding areas would not necessarily translate into growing numbers in district high schools. Rather, he presented data showing that school enrollment trends follow the population peaks and valleys of baby boomers, their children and their children’s children. According to Swanson, Missoula’s age demographics are likely to translate into a dip in high school-age students over the next 10 to 12 years, followed by an up-tick once the grandchildren of boomers reach their teenage years. Later, when Wilson polled committee members for feedback, they asked her to invite another demographics expert for a second opinion. Some members wonder whether growth outside the city might translate into higher enrollment figures at high schools within the city.

Asked if the meetings, as rumored, are just one step in a predetermined, administrator-backed plan to close Hellgate, Wilson said she has refuted that allegation in the past and will continue to do so.

“I think the reason that [Hellgate] comes into play is people say, ‘Look at the three high schools; what’s the oldest one?’” Wilson said.

Administrators are not currently supporting a Hellgate closure, said Wilson, but future discussions will likely take into account the building’s age and condition.

“It is the oldest building and has the most issues in terms of maintenance and upkeep.”

As most of the committee members were leaving the meeting, Wilson called for public comment. Parent Jeanne Joscelyn implored the nine remaining district employees to take parent input into consideration earlier on in similar meetings, and reiterated the emotional toll elementary school closures have had on parents.

“We’ve been through the mill lately,” she said.

Parent Marlene Hutchins was a vocal critic of the board’s decision to close elementary schools.

“I feel hopeful that because our administration is making gestures to involve the public at this stage, the board will be open to hearing what our educators and our public would like to see happen in our school system,” Hutchins said.

Severson said the planning is all about communication. He, too, feels optimistic that administrators are sincere in their attempts to involve parents and the public: “I liked what I saw so far.”

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