Next Tuesday, April 7, Missoulians go to the polls and elect three Missoula County School Board members for the 11-person board-seven trustees are both secondary and elementary, and four are secondary only.
In addition to setting policies, ranging from administrative salaries to whether school children might be required to wear uniforms, for the district and overseeing the hiring and firing of school employees, they will be asked to allocate a budget that has already been deemed insufficient.
At stake, in particular, are two major issues at the elementary school level: the closing of neighborhood schools, such as the widely debated (presently diverted) move to close Roosevelt this winter, and the reduction or elimination of specialized programs such as art, music, athletics and Excel.
Elementary and secondary districts have two separate budgets. In order to meet all the elementary school's contractual obligations, the board will have to trim nearly $830,000; meanwhile, the high schools must find a way to eliminate nearly $140,000, provided an additional $369,490 levy, which will authorize some state assistance, passes this week.
These figures come from the general funds, which pay for classes, teacher salaries and special programs within school curriculum. There also remain concerns about the health of the school infrastructure and building maintenance which have prompted the county to float a building reserve levy of $360,000 for voter approval.
Given the difficult task of sorting through such problems, a casual observer might think the school board would have a dearth of candidates. But that's not the case.
Although there's only one secondary school candidate running unopposed, Drake Lamm, the primary board race looks to be hot.
The candidates in this race, minus Renee Huber, are all parents, and each and every one-including Huber, whose nieces and nephews attend Missoula's public schools-are commanded by a desire to avoid what seems like a no-win situation.
Incumbents Michael Kupilik and Jan Guffin point to ongoing problems stemming from a lack of state funding for education. They insist that while long-term planning and innovative solutions provide an outlet, there must also be experienced hands available to work through the intricacies of the budgeting process.
Guffin is blunt when she explains why she decided to run again. Without a veteran like Kupilik, who has served for 12 years, or herself on the board, she says, the complex administration of school financing could be very difficult.
Noting that the schools are reaching a crisis point, Guffin says, "It takes at least one or two years to learn [the ins and outs]."
Guffin also says she's not afraid to close schools, a sentiment echoed by newcomer David Ryan and Kupilik, but only if it is found to be the only solution to budgetary woes. "The different programs are far more important than the physical location of where they're delivered," Ryan says.
By contrast, Huber, Suzette Dussault, Craig Rayle and Richard Newlon all say they are vehemently against closing schools.
Perhaps the most outspoken candidate is Jerry Kogan, a small businessman and father of two kids in the Excel program. Kogan says he's willing to close schools and cut programs, including the Excel program, which he calls "an waste of money."
Talking about the general curriculum, Kogan cites his children's experience, blaming their lack of retention on "curriculum jumping," or the non-relative order in which he believes subjects are taught. Kogan suggests that standardized testing at the end of each grade to determine whether students might graduate could set an expectation for teachers and kids alike.
If teachers repeatedly had a large number of students fail the test, he says they could be terminated. At the same time, Kogan proposes a higher student-teacher ratio per class to reduce spending.
While Kogan doesn't necessarily want Roosevelt School closed, he disagrees with the idea of never closing a neighborhood school. He lives near the growing Linda Vista area, and doesn't want to see a moratorium on new schools. "It's hypocritical to say neighborhood schools are crucial and at the same time say we can't build a new school elsewhere in the city if the numbers justify it," he says.
In light of the current lack of funds, other candidates have suggested looking into alternate finance streams. Huber wants to see grants pursued, especially through the Washington Foundation, believing former teacher Phyllis Washington could be an ally. Newlon suggests charging a fee to new subdivisions per house that could be set aside for education.
Rayle and Dussault say the board must trim more fat from administration and streamline other positions. "There's a point where we need to close schools, but we haven't reached it," Rayle says. "I can't see making one of our schools the sacrifice until we see cuts in other areas."
As administrators and board members struggle with these issues, voters will have an opportunity on Tuesday to address other measures which could bolster school funding. On the ballot is a one-year, $360,000 elementary building reserve levy as well as the secondary school mill levy.
Bruce Moyer, the executive director of business for MCPS, says the mill levy will allow the district to grow its budget to meet rising high-school enrollment while the building reserve fund could pay for equipment and maintenance in schools, freeing some general fund money to be used elsewhere.
If passed, local taxpayers will see an increase of nearly $3 per year on a $100,000 home.
Mary Vagner, MCPS superintendent, who has taken a lot of heat, says some grants are already in place. But she adds that it's funding meant as seed money for unique development projects, such as incorporating technology in the classroom.
She says if the community is really concerned about school funding, it needs to be active in lobbying the state legislature. "The long term solution is dependent upon legislative action," she says.
School board candidate Jerry Kogan says that the Excel program for gifted students is a "waste of money," and recommends larger class sizes to help save money.