The Monforton School in Four Corners is a bellwether for what is happening all over the county.
The area is named after an early resident, French Canadian Henry Monforton, who came to this area to mine in 1863, a year before Montana was even a territory. Its first school was a log cabin, called Middle Creek School with Miss Nell Lyon starting to teach in August 1883.
An early photo shows Lyons standing in front of the log cabin schoolhouse with 21 students.
Fast forward 138 years. The elementary district covers a small,15 square miles. But that log cabin school is now a district where 677 students started classes in August.
And the school is bursting at the seams with absolutely nowhere else to go. Practically every square inch of the school properties is built up.
“We’ve had four building projects in the last 10 years,” Monforton School Superintendent Darren Strauch told the Belgrade News.
“We’ve added 30 new classrooms. In 2012, we had 250 students in K-8. This year, almost 700. We are doing everything we can to hold onto that ‘rural school’ feeling, but it’s getting tougher and tougher.”
Ironically, Monforton is trying to hold onto its rural school roots because the juggernaut of development is gobbling up surrounding farmland for subdivisions from where all the new students are coming.
It was just in 2006 that Monforton was facing uncertain, lean times. At that time, the county’s growth spurt hadn’t reached Monforton, and the school’s 1995 numbers had fallen to 131 in 2004.
At that time, five new subdivisions that stood to eventually add 373 students to Monforton’s student body were in the planning stage. They were projected to add a total of 1,100 new homes.
The biggest of the bunch, Black Bull Run, was expected to add 378 homes. At the time, as a high-end golf course subdivision “it would attract rich out-of-staters and retirees without kids in Monforton,” pointed out resident John Leeper in an interview with the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
At the time, school officials asked developers to voluntarily contribute money to the school, since state law does not allow impact fees for what a development does to a school syste. That suggestion was met with lukewarm enthusiasm by local developers, according to a January 2006 story in the Chronicle.
There’s considerable development happening on the west side of Bozeman; some big farms are going to subdivide,” which translates to more students, Strauch continued.
“We are all built up and looking for a 10- to-20 acre parcel,” Strauch continued. “We have a little room. We are currently outfitted for 750 (students). (The available property) … out there is either too small or too big.
“If we can’t find something, we hit the panic button. But we aren’t backed into a corner yet. And we’re having preliminary conversations (regarding properties). We have had an almost perpendicular growth curve.”
Modular building are a possibility, he added. “We have some more capacity, but not much.”
The Monforton school district also is having the hiring problems currently endemic elsewhere in the Gallatin Valley. Only 12 of 22 para-professional district slots are filled.
“I need maintenance workers, secretaries, cafeteria help,” Strauch said. “When we can only pay $12 or $13 an hour and Taco Bell pays $19, it’s hard.”
School started last Thursday. “In Gallatin Valley it’s the Golden Age of education. We have high-quality education for families to access,” Strauch said.
Back in 1883-84, the entire school year cost $705.12, according to a school history compiled in 1982.
Henry Monforton was elected school board chair in 1888. His granddaughter Alice Menard Sweeney recalled when their farm was called the Roseneeath farm, and local Indians came by to ask for flour, which Monforton gave them – if they hauled it themselves.
In 1899, the school owned 31 books, and the fuel bill for the year was $22.50. By 1905, the school library had 100 books.
The 1909 school district report is missing from the courthouse. By 1911, the district owned 42 textbooks, which were not free. By 1913 the library had grown to 321 books.
In a May 25, 1975, story, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle noted that Monforton had built a new facility a few years ago “and is now facing crowded conditions.” In 1981, Monforton was the largest rural school in Montana, according to the school’s 1982 history compilation.