Lone Rock School District is hosting a planning meeting on Jan. 30 that Superintendent Scott Stiegler hopes draws in the community to discuss what to do about declining enrollment, aging facilities and funding.
The school board has had several planning session with teachers, staff, and a few parents, and is encouraging the community to participate in the process.
“We want to hear as many voices as possible,” Stiegler said. “It is important to have all or most of our stakeholders participate in the development and direction of our school. The more input and participation we have, the more buy-in we’ll have from the community as a whole.”
Stiegler said that early in the planning process a mission, a vision, and what is best for the district are defined. The next step is to decide how to achieve the goals.
“We want to have the programs and policies in place that will allow us to achieve our district vision,” Stiegler said. “At the board level, we defined some general goals with input from the public. Whoever is at the meeting is able to make their voices heard. This is a great opportunity to come forward and be part of the positive process of planning.”
The Lone Rock School Board met in August and October and the meeting in January will not be the last.
“We will have as many meetings as it takes,” Stiegler said.
The challenges facing Lone Rock School District are similar to many schools in the Bitterroot Valley and Montana – declining enrollment, less state and federal funding, and aging buildings. A few years ago Lone Rock enrollment was up to 320, but those numbers dropped by about 100 students and have not rebounded.
“Our district’s enrollment can quickly be affected by a class size,” Stiegler said. “It’s a bigger percentage of students when a large class come through.”
Lower numbers affect “Average Number Belonging” - the deciding factor in how much state funding a school district receives. Montana uses a three-year average to calculate the entitlements and if funding lags behind enrollment, then funding is more challenging.
“When the enrollment is increasing you have to teach more students with less funding because the funding isn’t catching up with enrollment,” Stiegler said. “We are not there yet.”
Lone Rock’s enrollment count last spring was about 225 and their fall count was 208.
“We hope we are at the bottom of that enrollment decline cycle,” Stiegler said.
Three years ago Lone Rock had $530,000 in non-salary spending. This year that amount is $190,000 less.
“You still have to run the buses, you still have to turn the lights on, you still have to heat the building, and you still have to maintain the environment regardless of enrollment,” Stiegler said. “Those costs don’t change a lot.”
With less funding, difficult decisions have to be made about what to cut - classroom supplies and professional development are the least favorite cuts.
“Nobody likes to see cuts anywhere, so those are hard decisions to make,” Stiegler said.
He praised the community and Parent Teacher Members (PTM) for supporting the programs at the school with special fundraising events including a fun run and “trunk or treating.”
Some of the buildings at Lone Rock have been around for a while. The brick building was built in 1914; the kitchen, cafeteria and multi-purpose room were added in 1973; and the kindergarten through second grade wing were added in 1992, which is 25 years ago.
“Our wonderful middle school was finished in 2000 and is not seeing the age wrinkles that the elementary side is seeing,” Stiegler said.
The planning meeting in January will focus on the feedback the board has received.
“This is a very transparent and public process,” Stiegler said. “We asked what are the positive things at Lone Rock and what are the challenges that need to improve. We have quite a bit of information.”
The next step in the planning process is to identify places where children are not safe – in a facility or in a social setting.
“We are looking for any kind of feedback and want this to be positive with constructive ways to improve,” Stiegler said. “We’ll use this as data to help us decide what to do and implement a plan. Is it a facility issue and we need to allocate funds, or is it a social issue where we need to teach students to behave or teach adults how to monitor behaviors?”
The Lone Rock School Board will listen to the community and decide how to take care of these issues, and perhaps more funding is needed.
“We’ll look at how to get that funding,” Stiegler said. “Will we push at the state level? Write letters? Is it opening our own pockets and funding it locally with taxes, levies, or how do we do that?”
Stiegler said the planning process is a “round table discussion.”
“This is what we - with all our stakeholders - want to do together to achieve our vision for Lone Rock,” he said. “We want more conversation that is robust with as many stakeholders as possible. There are community groups, parents, teachers, staff, and we also have non-parent community members that pay their taxes as well and they are a part of this.”
Stiegler said the planning process is a way for people to share what the school is good at and where it needs to improve.
“I feel like in the tug-of-war of school life, so many are pulling the rope from the same direction,” he said. “The people at Lone Rock are getting behind the school. We have such a positive vibe and we want to springboard this into our planning and help us move ahead.”
Lone Rock School District’s planning meeting begins with a potluck at 5 p.m. on Jan. 30 at the school.
“What a great way to bring people together,” Stiegler said. “We talk while we eat.”