By Ross Markman
The Hill County Commission today voted 2-1 to deny the Cottonwood Elementary School District's request to open a facility to accomodate students who attend Havre Public Schools but want to attend Cottonwood.
The issue came down to choices.
The district wanted to give students living within its borders the choice to attend Cottonwood's small-school setting. But as commissioner Doug Kaercher pointed out, those students already have four options Havre Public Schools, Kremlin Public Schools, Havre Christian School and St. Jude Thaddeus School to choose from.
"To put another choice right in the middle of four choices, that's where I have a problem," Kaercher said. "I'm having a real hard time with a new school being put up there."
Cottonwood school board chairwoman Beverly Peterson questioned that rationale.
"To deny (students) the choice, are we saying we don't care whether you have the choice to go to Cottonwood?" Peterson asked.
Establishing a second Cottonwood school would benefit the Cottonwood district, Kaercher said, but would have a negative impact on neighboring districts.
"What I've struggled with is why this issue comes to this office. In this situation, the (Cottonwood) district can affect other districts," he said. "You actually have the potential to remove kids from one district and put them in another."
Commissioner Kathy Bessette, who as a child attended a one-room school similar to Cottonwood's, voted in favor of the new school.
"I have done a lot of studying and a lot of soul searching. I'm not saying it's a good idea, but I feel people need choices," Bessette said. "I've struggled with this. When you talk about education and kids and choices of where they can go, it's really tough."
Peterson and other representatives of the Cottonwood School Board last week presented the commissioners with a petition signed by three parents who'd like their five children to attend Cottonwood.
The school board and the parents said they wanted to establish a new school closer to Havre.
The proposed school would have consisted of two modular classrooms located about seven miles from Havre, Peterson said. The district used the modulars until the radar base north of town closed in 1992. With the base's closing, the district's enrollment, once as high as 45, has shrunk to nine.
Six of Cottonwood's students live in Havre, and three live within the Cottonwood district. The school board hoped that establishing a facility closer to Havre would have attracted children who live in the Cottonwood district but attend Havre Public Schools, Peterson said.
The district, she said, is rapidly losing students north of Havre.
"We're down to three kids up north, but we have 20 kids in the south part who'd like to attend," Peterson said. "Some of the parents of those kids would like their kids to come to Cottonwood, but they don't want to come all the way out here."
Cottonwood's school is 22 miles north of Havre.
The request for the new school 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.
Miller was unavailable for comment today, but said last week that Cottonwood's proposal did not surprise him.
"I don't really have any thoughts because I'm reading about it for the first time in the newspaper," Miller said Wednesday. "I would like to know the details of the issue. I haven't been provided with the information."
Cottonwood buses continue to pick up children in Havre and will do so for the remainder the school year. They'll likely have to find an alternative in September, Peterson said.
The school board, she added, will consider hiring an attorney, and appeal the commissioners' decision.
"It's the name of the game," Peterson said of the vote. "We kind of anticipated it would go this way."