On the Chopping Block 

Parents, teachers look for better options to school cuts

It was, as Judy Smith paraphrased Yogi Berra, déjà vu all over again: parents and teachers, but mostly children, being called upon to take the blow for a school district budget shortfall projected in excess if $900,000 for the coming school year. Last year it was two school closures. This year, it’s teachers and student programs being sheperded to the chopping block, and the buzz in the crowd Tuesday night seemed to be that whomever you blame— trustees, the administration, state lawmakers—the system is broken and needs a serious overhaul.

The venue was the Sentinel High School cafeteria, where parents, teachers and other concerned residents were out in force to air their frustrations with the announcement by Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) to cut a proposed $907,000 out of the 2000-01 elementary and secondary school budget. If approved, those reductions will eliminate about 20 teaching positions, on top of the 14 teachers already slated for retirement at the end of this school year. According to the district, the budget cuts are necessary due to increasing costs and declining enrollment at the elementary and secondary school level.

The cuts, outlined by MCPS Executive Director of Business Services Bruce Moyer and Superintendent Mary Vagner, include $387,000 from the elementary school budget for such services as classroom teachers, music education and physical education. At the secondary school level, the district proposes an additional $288,000 from such services as a library aide, an alternative learning program staff member, technology support and sixth grade physical education.

No cuts are proposed at the administrative level.

“No one enjoys what we are forced to do at this time,” said school board trustee Greg Tollefson, who presided over Tuesday’s hearing. “But this need not be a forum for those who are pleased or displeased with the individuals in the administration.”

Tollefson’s remarks were in response to a lengthy testimony by perennial school board gadfly Janet Scott, who took to task some members of the administration and the board for failing to provide in-depth reports that compare budget line items with actual expenditures, as was routinely done in the past. Scott cited one example of a line item for school supplies which went underspent by $15,000 to $30,000 over a three-year period. Moyer disputed some of Scott’s claims, calling them “a host of misinformation.”

There was no shortage of other examples of how such pervasive cuts will be felt by students and teachers. Lucia Work, a parent of two children at Washington Middle School, expressed her concern that the loss of teachers at the seventh and eighth grade levels “will seriously harm the heart and soul of our middle schools,” by upsetting the so-called “teaching team” model that she says has been responsible for a 50 percent decline in student disciplinary problems.

Similarly, Jane Duncan, a language arts teacher at Washington Middle School, sees her work load jumping from grading 110 papers per assignment to 150 papers, a prohibitively large number that will reduce the frequency of such assignments and, inevitably, the writing ability of students.

“I’m really troubled by the trends I see in public education in the city of Missoula,” said Alex Philp, a parent of two girls and a NASA educational program employee who expressed concern about the loss of neighborhood schools and growing class sizes. “We need to come up with some better solutions. These solutions aren’t working, and they’re only going to get worse.”

The blame wasn’t all reserved for trustees and district representatives.

“We have here this evening very concerned citizens over the course of the future of our schools. What we don’t have here are the people who have the most impact on your decisions,” says James Carkulis, who accused state lawmakers of lacking a fundamental understanding of school reimbursement formulas. “What I truly urge you to be fervent about is dragging these rascals that don’t want to participate in this discussion by the ear, kicking and screaming, and force-feed them that we have a monumental problem in this community.”

What wasn’t mentioned Tuesday night was the revelation made earlier Tuesday that since 1994, the school district has been neglecting to make monthly contributions into an employee insurance fund for all MCPS employees. According to MCPS documents, the district should have been making contributions for all eligible employees, and not just those employees who chose to participate in the insurance plan.

As a result, the district’s two unions have filed a grievance against the district asking for payback of those contributions. The district has offered the unions $279,000 to settle that grievance.

“Frankly, we never looked at the language,” said Moyer, in explaining how the oversight went unnoticed until now. “We just thought we’re just doing it the way it’s always been done.”

According to Moyer, much of that money has already been budgeted, since the district has no way of knowing in advance which teachers will opt out of the insurance plan. Nevertheless, at least $115,000 of that $279,000 will have to be found in the general fund.

Those who testified Tuesday night seemed largely sympathetic of the difficult decisions facing the board, recognizing that there are no easy solutions. “There’s probably not a right decision,” said Jackie Moore. “But there is a right process.”

What was less obvious was what the long-term vision is for the future of Missoula’s public schools. To that question, there were no satisfactory answers.

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