By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Rocky Boy Public Schools wants to change its high school district boundaries and in the process has raised the possibility of redrawing the Chouteau and Hill county lines.
"It's actually, possibly less of a hurdle than moving district lines," Shirley Isbell, Hill County superintendent of schools, said Wednesday.
Isbell met with two Hill County commissioners and the Hill and Chouteau county attorneys Wednesday to explain the predicament. She said a change in both county and district lines would be the most effective solution to Rocky Boy's problem.
Without a change in district boundaries, Rocky Boy won't be able to build a campus on land it hopes might be used for a school, Rocky Boy superintendent Sandra Murie said.
The parcel is in Chouteau County and is part of the Big Sandy high school district. It's also within the Rocky Boy elementary district and is reservation land.
"Rocky Boy can't build a high school in somebody else's high school district," Isbell said.
The fastest growing part of the reservation is in Chouteau County, and space at Rocky Boy High School is already tight, Murie said.
A new state law says a school boundary change must involve taxable land, which excludes boundary transfers on reservations, which are federal trust land. Isbell said that unless the district finds a loophole, the law could mean that Rocky Boy could not expand its high school district.
There is another obstacle, Isbell said. A petition to change school boundaries must be signed by 60 percent of the registered voters in the effected area. Some people in the Chouteau County area of the reservation are registered in both counties or have a mailing address in Box Elder, factors that could invalidate their signatures, she said.
"It's going to have to be door-to-door," Isbell said of the petition drive.
The talk of building a new high school may be preliminary, but the school boundary issue already has some effect on Rocky Boy High School's budget.
About 15 Rocky Boy High School students live in the Big Sandy school district, said Rocky Boy High School principal Voyd St. Pierre. The Rocky Boy and Big Sandy districts don't have an attendance agreement concerning those students, so Rocky Boy does not receive all of the state funds it would otherwise be eligible for, he said.
Aside from school funding, the boundary line issue also affects the counties, which are responsible for paying the teacher retirement funds and transportation costs of school districts.
Chouteau County currently reimburses Hill County for the retirement and transportation costs associated with Rocky Boy elementary students who live in Chouteau County. It does not reimburse for high school students.
If district lines changed but county lines did not change, Chouteau County would have to reimburse Hill County for the high school students it does not educate as well.
With a change in county lines, Hill County would be responsible for all the associated retirement fund and transportation costs of more students.
"If we transfer (the county line) we get hit; if we don't transfer it, you guys get hit," said Hill County Attorney Cyndee Peterson.
Isbell said that for the moment all the discussion is theoretical because she has not received a petition for a boundary change.
Chouteau County Superintendent of Schools Larry Stollfuss did not attend Wednesday's meeting, but met with Isbell and Rocky Boy district representatives last week. He agreed with Isbell. "This is all just a bunch of conjecture," he said.
Isbell said the same issue comes up every five years or so, but that it has already gotten further along this time.
Murie said the Rocky Boy district is consulting with its attorney on how to proceed.