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Shrinking Enrollment has Noxon Educators Scrambling for Money

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March 27, 2002

In the mid 1980s, with declining enrollment, the school board governing operations of the Heron Elementary School faced a difficult decision. A levy had been placed before the voters in this small district and had not passed. The decision was made to close the school and the children were sent to Noxon some 15 miles away.

    The dilemma facing Heron School then was declining enrollment and the reluctance of taxpayers to pass the levy. Without it funding was inadequate to keep the school open.

    A similar dilemma is facing Noxon today, though Superintendent Jackie Holzhauser made it clear at a recent community meeting that the school was not in danger of closing. However, the similarity between Noxon and what happened in Heron over 15 years ago is the loss of students in the classrooms.

    After combining the elementary school in Heron with the neighboring school in Noxon, enrollment increased dramatically at first, then more steadily. By the 1996-97 school year the number of students in grades K through 8 stood at 194. That was the peak year, and since then the number of children has dropped even more dramatically than the increase of the `80s and early `90s. By October 2001, enrollment in K-8 at Noxon was 129 children – more than a 33% drop in just five years.

    The number of students in the high school has been steadier, peaking at 128 in `96-97; dropping off to 106 in `99-00; then rebounding over the past couple of years to 122 last October.

    But when taken altogether, Noxon School has lost 22% of its students in the past five years. And the trend does not show any sign of reversing itself. One woman at the community meeting explained that it was likely four of her grandchildren would have to leave the school next year as their parents carefully considered whether they would have to leave the area in order to find work elsewhere.

    The challenge for educators at what has traditionally been one of the largest Class C schools in all of Montana is how to continue offering quality education with the prospect of reduced funding staring them squarely in the eye. One solution is to convince voters to pass a supplemental school levy. This has become more the norm than the exception in recent years, and once again Noxon School is looking to taxpayers for a funding boost.

    In an informational pamphlet handed out at the community meeting last week, the reasons for a school levy are stated as these: declining elementary enrollment, increasingly rigorous state accreditation standards, hikes in health, property and liability insurance and expanding costs for energy. The proposed levy, which would appear on the general school election ballots in May, is for $127,704.24 for the elementary school and $6,518.41 for the high school.

    If passed, the cost of this levy to property owners would be $7.87 on a home valued at $50,000 or $15.75 on a home valued at $100,000. The area affected by the elementary levy includes Noxon and Heron. Trout Creek still has its own elementary school with 87 students enrolled, and so its own district. However, the Noxon high school district encompasses Trout Creek as well as Noxon and Heron.

    Passage of this levy is not considered to be automatic by school administrators. Last year’s levy, which included approximately $80,000 for the elementary school, passed by a mere one or two votes in Noxon and by less than 15 votes in each of Heron and Trout Creek. Yet if the this additional funding is not approved by voters this year, Holzhauser remarked, “To be really frank, we face the possible consolidation of multiple age classrooms, a look at the total omission of the free lunch program, impacts to athletics and reduced staff” and we’ll be grappling with maintaining our accreditation.

    She added, “If the levy does not pass the school does not close its doors, but there will be impacts.”

    District Clerk Theresa Van Buren noted, “Declining enrollment is not unique to Noxon. All the schools in the county and many throughout the state are losing children.” She also explained that there is an incredible turnover of children in Sanders County schools, stating it could be as high as 35% from year to year. “Only one third of the kids that start school here are here at 8th grade,” she said.

    The reason for that, said a community member attending the meeting, “is because there is less and less work here. Fathers have to go find work somewhere. We live in a county where there are no jobs.”

    That fact is underscored when the reasons given for students that have left the school are examined. A handout provided by the school district shows that of the 36 students that have left Noxon School (K-12) since the start of this school year, 33 of them have transferred or moved to another place. In 1999-00, 32 students left the school, and 25% of those went to be home schooled. Two dropped out of school that year, as did three more the following year.

    But once again, a closer look shows students transferring or moving en masse from Noxon School District: 21 in `99-00, 27 in `00-01.

    School levies, of course, make up a small portion of the funding for schools. Van Buren explained, though, that the funding process is so complicated that “even members of OPI (the state Office of Public Instruction) probably don’t understand all of it.” She noted that a 30-page document must be consulted just to figure out what the minimum and maximum dollar figures can be from one budget year to the next. “Until the funding formula is changed, levies are inevitable,” she concluded. “We had a levy last year, so why another this year? We’ll likely have one every year. This probably won’t be the last.”

    For more information about this year’s Noxon School levy, call Superintendent Jackie Holzhauser at 847-2442 during school office hours.


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Dennis Nicholls Dennis Nicholls was the founder, publisher, janitor and paperboy of the River Journal from 1993 to 2001. He passed away in 2009.

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