Forecast shows school enrollment may increase

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Students file into Muldown Elementary School in this Pilot file photo.

An updated look at the Whitefish School District’s enrollment projections predicts an increase of a total of 172 students enrolled in the next five years.

Jerome McKibben, of McKibben Demographics, presented via a phone call to the Whitefish School Board during their Feb. 5 meeting an update to the district’s demographic projections.

McKibben’s report predicts a 9.4 percent increase in total district enrollment from the current school year to the 2023-24 year. This year’s total enrollment for the district is 1,838 students.

The projected student increase would push total enrollment to 2,010 students for the 2023-24 school year.

A previous report done for the district in 2016 predicted a 113-student increase between the 2015-16 school year and 2020-21, followed by a 43-student drop for the following five years up to 2026.

The new estimates have a total enrollment decrease of just two students from 2023 to 2029.

Both Muldown and Whitefish Middle School are expected to hit a high of 746 students in 2020-21 before dropping down to around 700 over the following few years.

Whitefish High School is expected to see the biggest growth with its student population rising from the current 526 to 636 students by the 2023-24 school year, McKibben told the board.

“Your high school is actually going to see the highest amount of growth in the next 10 years as that wave goes through and replaces the small cohorts,” he said. “Over the last eight or nine years, your 12th grade class has averaged about 120 students. Over the next 10 years, it’s going to average about 150 students.”

The current prediction is based on a steady existing home sales market in the district and a consistent rate of in-migration of young families, according to the report. The study assumes that 30-year fixed home mortgage rates stay between 5 and 6 percent and that development projects in Whitefish, including planned, platted and approved projects, are completed by 2027 and occupied by 2028.

While the 1.93 resident total fertility rate — the average number of births a woman will have in her lifetime — for the district falls short of the replacement level of 2.1, the report predicts in-migration of in the 0 to 9 and 25 to 44-year-old age groups to help bring in new students to the district.

The study also predicts continued outflow in the homegrown 18-to-24-year-old population moving away and in the over-70 population.

“You’ve had empty-nesters move out, people who don’t have kids in school, and be replaced by young households that have either school aged kids, preschool-aged kids or in some cases manage to have a birth after they get out to Whitefish,” McKibben said. “Which is good, because you need that flow. You don’t have enough birth on your own to maintain 140-plus first grade cohorts”

Trustee Ruth Harrison noted how statistics on Whitefish’s population don’t seem to add up with how the town is often discussed.

“I think we’ve been often told that our population, our demographic, is retirees who move here ... now from what you’re saying, it appears the climate is not that attractive for that group, so our population is not going to age as rapidly as we might have once thought,” she said.

McKibben responded by calling Whitefish’s current median age of 43 “pretty old,” but said earlier predictions of that median age figure rising swiftly have slowed.

The median age of Whitefish is predicted to rise from 43.2 in 2010 to 44.9 in 2030, though earlier projections had the median age at 45.6 by 2020.

“That inflow is more and more young families, and that’s why your increase in median age kind of flattened out,” he said.

The district in 2016 commissioned a demographic study to assist in planning for future growth and continues to update that study.

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