Children learning kindergarten
Credit: Adobe stock. May not be republished without license.

A longrunning after-school and summer program for Missoula County Public Schools students is weathering sudden upheaval after its administrator, Western Montana Mental Health Center, said tight finances and staffing challenges meant it could no longer be responsible for operations. The district and other community organizations are now working to fill the gaps.

The Flagship Program, which worked with Franklin, Hawthorne and Russell elementary schools, C.S. Porter, Meadow Hill and Washington middle schools, and Hellgate and Willard high schools, served 1,186 students between 2021 and 2022, according to its most recent annual report. The 25-year-old program was also scheduled to provide full-day activities for elementary school students at no cost to families throughout the summer.

Western notified the Missoula public school system last month that the organization would no longer be running the program after the end of the current school year, according to interim executive administrator Colleen Rudio. The once-prolific behavioral health organization has closed or scaled down several programs in recent years and had county contracts pulled, an outcome Western has partly attributed to low reimbursement from the state for services to Medicaid patients. Western’s board of directors in May decided not to renew the contract of former CEO Levi Anderson and is now in search of new leadership.  

Western employed youth development coordinators and program staff to operate Flagship. The program received funding from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, the Louis L. Borick Foundation and the Otto Bremer Trust, among others. Rudio said all of the program’s grant obligations for the current school year will be fulfilled by the end of June; any remaining funds will be transferred to other community groups.

According to Missoula County Public Schools Interim Superintendent Russ Lodge, news of the cancellation of Flagship’s services came about “pretty quickly.” The district, which provided some of the program’s funding through a state grant, got its first notification of the change in early May. MCPS Academic and Community Services Director Barbara Frank told Montana Free Press that they initially believed programming would continue through the summer but later learned that was not the case. 

“We just learned about mid-May that they were not going to be able to support that summer programing,” Frank said. “That’s where we stepped in with these community partners, and we’re still working out all of those financing details for those.”

Working with the YMCA, Missoula Parks and Recreation and other local organizations, MCPS was able to guarantee summer services for dozens of Missoula families who had already registered. That daily programming, Frank said, will largely mirror what Flagship did previously through the three elementary schools, including field trips and artistic activities sponsored by local nonprofits such as the Clay Studio. She added that most summer sites will operate from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, for the next two months, addressing what Lodge characterized as a pressing demand among local families.

“We have immediate needs because of the summer programing, which is critical to a lot of families,” Lodge said. “Not only does it help your kids, it’s helping with daycare as well and people count on us. We’ve got everybody covered that we needed to through July 31st.”

Missoula Family YMCA Chief Operating Officer Keri McHugh said that in order to meet those immediate needs, organizations such as hers have tried to “divide and conquer,” with each essentially adopting one of the three elementary schools slated to be Flagship sites this summer. In the YMCA’s case, that meant pivoting quickly to provide seven weeks of programming for at least 80 families at neighboring Russell Elementary. McHugh said the YMCA has hired a coordinator for those services and is working to hire additional counseling staff.

“We’re kind of building the airplane as we fly it,” said McHugh, who formerly worked for the Flagship Program.

Organizing summer services for kids is something McHugh describes as “totally in our wheelhouse,” and the program at Russell has effectively become another arm of the YMCA’s existing summer camp offerings. The real challenge, she noted, has been funding, since honoring Flagship’s no-cost approach means the programming itself won’t generate revenue. Russell does receive federal funding to support low-income students, and according to McHugh, MCPS was able to redirect some of that money to help with the program. However, she added that the YMCA is now looking for other funding sources to cover roughly $32,000 in costs.

“Flagship had a lot of support, and they did a lot of things really well,” McHugh said. “We’re trying to let those Flagship families have the summer that they signed up for and the summer that they could afford.”

Meg Whicher, recreation program manager at Missoula Parks and Recreation, told MTFP via email that her agency will provide after-school services at Franklin Elementary as well as satellite programming at C.S. Porter Middle School. She said those services will mirror what parks and rec already offers at Lowell Elementary, focusing on “mentorship, positive youth development and engagement within a child’s own neighborhood,” and will be offered “at no cost to families.”

Lodge said MCPS is meeting regularly with the YMCA and other community partners — now collectively referred to as the All Hands Alliance — to discuss long-term strategies beyond July 31. Flagship provided students not just with summer programming but also a range of after-school mentoring and skill-based activities throughout the school year. Frank said the present situation provides an opportunity to create a comprehensive package of after-school programs and to work together with organizations outside the district to identify potential funding sources. Those sources could include federal education grants or grants from the Montana Office of Public Instruction that were recently expanded by the 2023 Legislature.

Whether the programming is in place by the start of the fall semester is unclear, but Lodge assured Missoula families that “we will be up and running.” Frank added that despite the suddenness of the situation, the district continues to value the contributions Flagship has made to K-12 education in the community.

“For our part, there’s no sour grapes or hard feelings,” Frank said. “We understand that things can happen unexpectedly and that decisions need to be made in real time and that we have to respond with some degree of flexibility.”

Rudio, who stepped in as Western’s interim administrator after Anderson’s departure in May, said Friday that she understands the frustration that other community groups and former Flagship staff may be feeling about the sudden change but is optimistic about how the program will evolve. Having had her own kids go through Flagship, Rudio emphasized the importance of providing positive and healthy youth engagement opportunities in Missoula. She said Western is vetting how it can use its limited resources and staff to meet community needs and deliver services going forward. 

“There’s a role for Western within Flagship. It’s us working with the right partners to figure out what that role should be,” Rudio said. 


Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...

Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.