Rob Watson file photo

Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Watson is shown in a file photo.

MISSOULA — Missoula County Public Schools' open enrollment policy — allowing students to transfer to any school at any time, even in the middle of the semester — has long been a touchy subject.

But sweeping changes are coming to how and why kids transfer, and they are coming quickly. Long a recognized issue, until now no formal policy was in place to dictate exactly who can transfer where and why, much to the ire of some parents who felt some Missoula high schools were getting a competitive advantage in athletics.

Before the proposed changes, Missoula was unique among Montana districts in how little procedure there was when it came to students transferring. The only hurdle would be if all classrooms in a specific school were full, which the MCPS registration site says, "is generally not a problem." All the other Class AA schools in the state have stringent procedures when it comes to intra-district transfers. 

On June 23 the MCPS Board of Trustees had a first reading of a transfer policy that would set forth rigorous guidelines for students wanting to go to a school outside their respective attendance areas.

MCPS Superintendent Rob Watson told the Missoulian and 406mtsports.com he saw “a lot of unwritten rules" when he arrived last year, "and that was discouraging because if kids don’t understand what the rules are and parents don’t understand what the rules are around transfers, the whole process is not very transparent. That was the biggest problem that I saw.”

The document, which is on the MCPS website, lists six reasons why students would be considered for a transfer. In order of importance they are: Legal/Safety, Health, Academic, Siblings, Children of Staff and Other Requests.

The criteria the school district will consider when sifting through the applications are: state accreditation standards, availability of specialty or elective courses, overall class sizes, the impact of increased or decreased enrollment in support areas, and a student’s attendance and discipline history.

This is Watson's third Class AA school district and the proposed policy takes much from how Kalispell and Bozeman — both towns with multiple Class AA high schools now — have designed their own transfer policies, he said.

Public comment on the policy is open through July 21, with the procedures that back up the policy to be discussed on July 14. The new policy could be adopted as early as July 28.

“There really wasn’t a strict policy or adherence to a common practice with transfers,” Watson said. “So students were transferring in the middle of a school year or in the middle of a semester, and there was just no deadlines or timelines or reasons or rationale for why kids could transfer or couldn’t transfer.”

Gail Maehl is one of the parents upset about how transfers previously worked.

Maehl sent two children through the district and both went to Big Sky High School. She feels she has seen firsthand the inequities among the schools, including a culture of high-level athletes transferring midway through their high school athletic careers to pursue better athletic opportunities at other schools.

She claims this has been far more negative to Big Sky High School than it has to the other two large Class AA high schools in Missoula proper.

“It’s become a sports thing, and unfortunately, the school currently being drained from is Big Sky,” Maehl said. “It’s just hard. I’m not advocating for Big Sky particularly, it’s just the experience we had.

“What I’d like to see, as a parent, is equality. These are public schools, and we’re paying taxes.”

There are issues large and small — one complaint Maehl had was with the Golden Goat trophy as well. Big Sky was not invited to play for Gertie since the trophy has been in existence. 

Maehl said the issue became a full-on problem when the different schools started offering more specific electives unique to each high school. For example, Big Sky and Hellgate both offer International Baccalaureate classes, which are similar to Advanced Placement (AP) classes.

Sentinel, meanwhile, offers electives in a variety of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses that may not be available at the other two big public high schools.

Watson wanted to make it clear that any student can meet any college requirement at any of the three large high schools, but said the new transfer policy was set up to protect kids looking to get into specific programs.

In those cases, transfers will get a higher priority. Watson also said that there will be a push to have kids in the district figure out what programs and electives they would like to pursue before ninth grade to help cut down on mid-high school transfers.

Maehl said the transfers became abused due to the lack of policies and procedures.

“There should be a sense of equity, you live in this school district (high school footprint), this is where you go, yeah your team might not be the best this year, but this is where you go,” Maehl said. “Maybe next year or three years down the road, you’re better. These things have ebbs and flows. That’s called authentic competition.”

Before Belgrade joined the Class AA ranks, Big Sky was the smallest school in the largest athletic classification in the state, despite its location in the second-largest city.

According to enrollment data obtained by the Missoulian and 406mtsports.com, Big Sky was the second-smallest Class AA school with 1,079 kids enrolled in the spring semester, only beating out newcomer Belgrade by just under 100 students. Hellgate had 1,144 students this past spring; Sentinel is the largest MCPS school with 1,237 students enrolled.

In 2019, Sentinel had 1,226 students, Hellgate 1,180 and Big Sky 1,110.

At other schools around the state, towns with more than one high school at the same level often go through cycles. Those natural ebbs and flows can easily be seen in Helena, Great Falls and Billings.

Both schools — or all three, in Billings’ case — in each of those cities have appeared in a state championship game in girls basketball, boys basketball, football, softball, girls soccer and boys soccer, or a state title game in football or volleyball at least six times since 2010.

Big Sky has been in just three of the 60 total state title games in the previously mentioned sports since 2010, falling in all three. Hellgate has been in 13 with Sentinel appearing in nine.

As for total state athletic championships, the disparity is even more obvious: After Bozeman’s remarkable 56 state titles over the last 10 years, Hellgate is second among Class AA schools in that time frame with 23 team championships. Sentinel is seventh with nine. Big Sky has just two: back-to-back boys state track titles in 2013 and 2014, which puts it tied for last in the state with Butte.

Before that, the Eagles had not won a state championship since taking girls basketball in 2009. 

Since that point, however, Big Sky has been in something of an athletics slide. Some in the Garden City community may point to what appear to be better coaching hires throughout the years at Sentinel and Hellgate. For many, though, the problem stems from the population of the school, not the coaches MCPS has hired at Big Sky. 

Once a new policy is in place, parents said it could help level the playing field and make things more fair for everyone involved.

“It’s the way it should be, because then you’re not coaching to certain groups or certain people,” longtime Big Sky track coach Dan Nile said. “Whenever you have something that’s like that, if you have to cater to someone to get them to come to your school, that’s not a good thing for the program.”

At Hellgate,  activities director Nick Laatsch expressed a similar sentiment.

"The intent is to provide clarity on the process, that's what I see to be the case," Laatsch said. "I think it's how it should be, right?"

MCPS is also putting a lock on out-of-district transfers for the time being, as Watson says the class sizes are increasing. While this is true at Sentinel, especially, it is not the case at Big Sky.

Sentinel has had several high-profile out-of-district transfers over the past few years, including Jaxon Lee from Drummond-Philipsburg and Jace Klucewich from Frenchtown.

Both players are either signed or committed with the UM football team.

But this also brings up a point many in the community have expressed as well — if an athlete has a chance at a better scholarship or more exposure at a different school, is that a problem?

"In this day and age and in all walks of life, people are searching for the best opportunities to better themself," Missoula Hellgate head basketball coach Jeff Hays said. "In education I do not think that we should restrict or limit people’s choices to find the best fit or opportunity for themselves or family."

Jordan Hansen covers a bunch of stuff for the Missoulian and 406 Sports. Shout at him on Twitter @jordyhansen or shoot him an email at Jordan.Hansen@406mtsports.com

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