By Ross Markman
The Cottonwood Elementary School District is proposing to open a second facility to accomodate students who attend Havre Public Schools but want to attend Cottonwood.
Representatives of the Cottonwood School Board attended Monday's Hill County Commission meeting, seeking approval of the new school, which would consist of two modular classrooms about seven miles from Havre. Cottonwood School is about 22 miles from Havre.
The commissioners said they would make a decision by March 21.
"This is the first we have officially heard of what's going on. I think we need to look this over," Commissioner Pat Conway said.
School Board chair Beverly Peterson said she wasn't surprised or disappointed the district didn't receive immediate approval.
"I know that that's part of the political process here. I, myself, like to sit on things for a couple of days," Peterson said today. "I hope they approve it. That's just one of the stepping stones we have to go through."
The request comes five months after Havre Public Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller informed Cottonwood it was violating Montana law by picking up elementary students from inside the Havre district without the Havre School Board's permission. In November, Miller offered to negotiate with Cottonwood to find a suitable place outside of Havre to pick up the students.
According to Peterson, Cottonwood buses can pick up kids in Havre for the remainder of this school year, but will likely have to find an alternative in September.
Cottonwood School currently teaches nine students. Six live in Havre, and three live within the Cottonwood district. The school had an enrollment of about 45 kids in the mid-1980s, Peterson said. Enrollment dropped dramatically when the radar base north of town closed in 1992, she said.
The district wants children who live in the Cottonwood district but attend Havre schools to be able to go to school in Cottonwood.
"We see we are losing kids up north, but still have them in the south," Peterson told the commissioners. "There are 26 kids in the south part of the district. Some parents would like their kids to come to Cottonwood, but they don't want to come all the way out here."
Take Marcus and Charlie O'Donnell. Although they live within the boundaries of the Cottonwood School District, the O'Donnells attend Havre schools, mainly because they're closer. Their mother, Chris, said she'd like that to change.
"We are in the Cottonwood School District and that's where our kids should go," O'Donnell said after the meeting. "They would get better one-on-one help."
O'Donnell isn't alone. She and two other parents from the southern part of the district, Ron Konesky and Stephanie Borst, signed a petition requesting the district make Cottonwood accessible to their children.
With five students projected for the proposed school and four at Cottonwood School, the district could receive $97,067 $58,579 for Cottonwood, $38,488 for the new school in funding from the state next year.
"That figure could change depending on how many students come. But the money is there to pay for it," Shirley Isbell, Hill County superintendent of schools, told the commissioners.
"I think the board is trying to meet the needs of the citizens of their district by putting a school where their children are located," Isbell said after the meeting.
To open the new school, Peterson said, the district has about $20,000 in its coffers, and would seek an additional $20,000 loan from the state Board of Investments.
The district already owns the two modular buildings and used them for a school up until 1992.
Residents of the Cottonwood district could see their tax rate jump from 2 mills to 10 mills while the loan is being paid off, Peterson said. One mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of assessed property value.
If the commissioners do approve the school, the next step for the Cottonwood board would be to submit a request to State Superintendent Linda McCulloch.
"The intent here is to make use of what buildings we have. We have the need. We're just in the wrong place," Peterson said. "... If (the commissioners) disapprove, I guess we'll have to go another avenue."