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Mullan area residential growth raises questions over future school capacity

The growing Mullan area sits under a blanket of snow. Hellgate Elementary Superintendent Doug Reisig said the district has a current enrollment of roughly 1,500 students, though it could “comfortably” take more. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

Last month’s approval of Remington Flats became the latest subdivision planned for the Mullan area, where thousands of new residents will find housing, potentially bringing hundreds of young students to the Hellgate Elementary School District.

While Hellgate Elementary said it can accommodate more students in the short term, Missoula City Council members have expressed concern over the school’s eventual capacity and the need to plan ahead as the district grows.

Among them, council member Jordan Hess believes the city should take a supportive role in planning for future school development. The conversations have already begun to surface as new subdivisions come forward seeking approval.

“It’s something I really hope that we can get ahead of, and we can come up with solutions before it becomes a major problem,” Hess said.

Remington Flats is a 152-lot subdivision planned within the Hellgate district, and other projects are in the works. The first and second phase of Hellgate Village also is up for consideration next week.

Hellgate Elementary Superintendent Doug Reisig said the district has a current enrollment of roughly 1,500 students, though it could “comfortably” take more. Hellgate is the largest independent school in Montana.

“We’re below class size standards at nearly every level, and we have a lot of luxuries where others don’t,” Reisig said.

Voters approved a levy for Hellgate Elementary in 2016. It aimed to reduce class sizes with the creation of a middle school on the district’s 43-acre property, giving it a maximum capacity of roughly 2,000 students. The levy was proposed when the school’s capacity was 1,490 students.

Opening the new middle school enabled Hellgate Elementary to split into four separate buildings, each accompanying a certain range of grades between Kindergarten and the eighth grade.

The fourth- through sixth-grade building is nearing max capacity, according to Reisig. Other buildings are in a more comfortable position. Reisig said the school as a whole could take 300 more students before it starts feeling “overcrowded.”

“At some point down the line, capacity might be something we need to look at, but thanks in part to our generous taxpayers, right now what’s on our radar is providing a quality learning environment with what we have,” Reisig said.

That focus on the learning environment extends to the superintendent’s future consideration of what schooling could look like as the Mullan area grows. As written, a draft of the Mullan Area Master Plan allocates land for a new neighborhood school that would sit within the Hellgate district.

But the proposed lot is near the primary runway at Missoula International Airport. Reisig said the potential lot is unsuitable for school expansion and education.

“Safety is an issue, and with that spot being so close to the airport and the runway, it doesn’t look like it will work for us,” he said.

Hellgate Elementary itself is directly east of the runway by roughly one and a half miles. In some proposed locations mapped out in the master plan, schools are less than half a mile from the runway.

Reisig said they have consistently had positive relations with the Missoula Airport Authority and trust them if such a development happens.

“From a school district standpoint, we’re not going to be against development,” Reisig said. “All we want is to be aware of these developments and for developers to keep us in the loop.”

Hess also advocated for communication from both sides. He said the council should take a supportive role with the school and remain predictable when considering future development.

“We have really clear housing needs that are becoming more and more urgent,” Hess said. “We don’t want to get to the point in developments where we discover the school is out of capacity.”