The future of elementary education in Columbia Falls is an uncertain one. As School District 6 continues to debate the possibility of refurbishing older facilities and building new ones, the question of what to do with the largely unused Canyon Elementary in Hungry Horse continues to linger.
The 26,000 square foot facility was built in 1988 at a cost of $1.1 million and, at its peak, held more than 200 students. When it closed at the end of the 2010-11 school year, the Canyon School had just 83 students and was operating at a loss of $270,000 per year.
To save money, the district had first proposed closing Canyon Elementary at the end of the 2009-10 school year but instead decided to keep the school open, albeit on a somewhat scaled-back basis, for one more year, a decision based in part on outcry from school staff and community members.
According to Superintendent Steve Bradshaw, the budgetary concerns that led to the closing of the Canyon School in 2011 are the same ones the district would have to face today if it were to reopen the school.
“It was a financial decision to close the Canyon School, plain and simple. I know there were a lot of people who did not agree with it, and I can understand that,” Bradshaw said. “I understand why the public would question why we are not using that building, but it wouldn’t necessarily save us any money and would most likely end up costing us quite a bit of money to reopen.”
Bradshaw said that one major drawback to reopening the Canyon School would be the drain on the district’s budget. If a bond were passed to build a new school or expand Ruder and Glacier Gateway, the taxpayer money for the project would come on top of the current budget and not draw money away from other projects.
Bradshaw also pointed out that reopening the Canyon School would only bring in a small number of new students to the district while adding a host of additional costs, including the need for a new part-time administrator, secretary, counselor, librarian, nurse and kitchen staff.
“It’s a financial decision more than anything else. If we reopen the Canyon School, we won’t have any additional students, so there would be no additional funding from the state,” Bradshaw said. “We would not have increased our funding, but to reopen the school, we would have to fill all those additional positions at an additional cost.”
A portion of the facility is currently being rented for use as the Hungry Horse Community Health Center and would have to be converted back for classroom use at a cost of $30,000 to $50,000 if the school were to reopen.
According to a study done by District Business Manager Dustin Zuffelato, the Canyon School would need approximately 200 students to break even, but the current population of elementary-age students in the school’s service area fall well short of that number. A 2018 report from the Flathead County Superintendent of Schools shows 52 students at West Glacier Elementary that would be eligible to attend the Canyon School and none at Deer Park. There are also 125 elementary-age students being homeschooled within the boundaries of School District 6, but it is unknown how many live within Canyon School’s service area. School District 6 is currently busing 103 students from the Canyon to either Glacier Gateway or Ruder elementaries, but that number can vary greatly from year to year, according to Bradshaw.
Zuffelato’s study also shows that even if the school were to get as many as 106 students, it would still be operating at a loss of $300,000 or more per school year.
The low number of students in the area surrounding the school presents another dilemma for the district, the possibility of having to bus students from the Columbia Falls area to the Canyon School, an option that Bradshaw said the school wants to avoid.
“That is one of the biggest concerns surrounding reopening the Canyon School, but we would hope to not have to do that,” he said. “I don’t think we would have many happy parents if we did.”
To help answer the question of whether or not parents would allow their children to attend the Canyon School, District 6 has placed a survey on their website at www.cfmtschools.net that allows parents of elementary age students in the area to voice their opinions on the matter. According to Bradshaw, since the survey was posted Thursday, 19 parents said they would send their children to the Canyon School while 16 say they would not.
In the end, Bradshaw says that reopening the Canyon School would only be a temporary fix, as District 6 still needs to find a way to deal with the problem of aging elementary facilities.
“We’re not trying to build the Taj Mahal here,” he said. “We just want to build something to replace structures that would cost way too much to fix.”