Belgrade Schools Superintendent Godfrey Saunders said this week that the district needs to be “creative” to figure out how to afford land for future schools as property values around the valley continue to skyrocket.

As he has been doing for months, Saunders updated school board members this week about some potential sites he has identified, among them a property on McMillan Lane, a DNRC-owned parcel near Amsterdam, and a piece that has been identified as a school site in the proposed West River 40 subdivision at Jackrabbit Lane and Valley Center Road.

In terms of a more “creative” solution, Saunders said he and Belgrade’s new City Manager Neil Cardwell have had an initial meeting about the possibility of closing a portion West Allison Avenue near the Heck-Quaw complex to make the already-owned district property viable for construction of a new school.

In 2019, voters approved a multi-pronged $48 million bond issue to pay for future school needs, including construction of a new elementary school (the just-opened Story Creek) and purchase of the 18.9 acres on which it sits on Bolinger Road. Story Creek was built to replace Heck-Quaw Elementary, which closed at the end of the 2020-21 school year.

Another component of the bond was to buy about 40 acres somewhere south of Interstate 90 for a future elementary and middle school.

Yet another component was to upgrade Heck Elementary for district needs, but no firm plans have been decided on for the building to date.

Saunders told the Belgrade News this week that market conditions were considerably different when voters approved the bond issue. After it passed, the district purchased the Bolinger Road property for $475,000.

Now, Saunders said, “I’ve been quoted everywhere from $150,000 to $350,000 per acre.” He said an elementary school can be built on 10-14 acres; a middle school requires at least 15.

Saunders told the board that future district enrollment will be rising quickly.

“What’s really scary is the subdivision close to Story Creek,” Saunders said. “As houses are completed, people are moving in … Boom! Boom! There’s no wait time.”

Market realities have presented the district with a logistical problem.

“You want to be fair with (sellers), but you want to be a good steward of taxpayers’ trust and dollars,” Saunders said.

Were the district able to make use of the Heck site, he added, “it would save taxpayers a few million.”

Both Saunders and Cardwell said they need to investigate the viability of closing Allison and garner the support of their respective elected boards before moving forward with the idea to use the Heck property for a new school. Preliminary internal work would include discussions with the Montana Department of Transportation, Cardwell said.

He said it’s possible that the issue could be raised formally with the city council before the end of the calendar year.

In other business at Belgrade’s School Board meeting Monday, trustees approved up to 10 days of paid leave for employees who test positive or whose family members test positive for COVID-19.