Missoula County Public Schools leaders are being thrown curve balls, as they try to figure out a boom in high school populations, while elementary class sizes slump.

But administrators say a far larger unknown is how the city's housing shifts are going to force them to adjust operations to accommodate for unexpected growth and change.

7-years ago, the plan seemed so certain. Voters would approve hundreds of millions of dollars for new construction and renovation, with the Smart Schools 2020 bond ensuring MCPS would be outfitted with safer, modern schools for decades to come.

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But today, Superintendent Russ Lodge says enrollment is all over the place. While the three high schools are bursting at the seams, elementary numbers are down.

"We lost quite a few kids in the pandemic in the younger ages. I think a lot of people kept their kids home. Perhaps they moved. Perhaps they did home-schooling. We have not fully recovered from that," Lodge says.

In fact, MCPS has hired a demographer to get some answers.

"See if we've got a trend of lower numbers, or whether it's more of a blip on the screen. And we really need that information so we can plan."

But Lodge tells me the tougher issue is the wild swings in Missoula housing. Large projects and developments are popping all over, often in places like Miller Creek, where an entirely new school could get overwhelmed.

"And is the population going to move across town or are people going to come in from the outside? And how is that going to impact your schools? And where do we need more classrooms?"

Case in point, there's so much new growth in East Missoula, the Mount Jumbo school might have to come back.

"That school is getting a lot of attention from us. Now wondering if we're getting closer to maybe opening that school up," Lodge explains.

However, the deeper, harder-to-predict shift comes from the cost of housing…

"So we don't know if traditionally neighborhoods that have had lots of kids in them, who lives in that neighborhood now as they sell? Are they going to be able to sell at the cost of homes to people who have kids? Or is it going to people who don't have kids."

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