Looking into the fiscal matters of Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) can be a little like opening a cooler that’s been stowed in the garage all summer, only to discover an uneaten egg salad sandwich that’s been there since Memorial Day. Something doesn’t smell right, but you know you need to get in there and do some cleaning.
In less than two weeks, Missoula County voters will be asked to vote on a ballot measure that would authorize the MCPS Board of Trustees to impose an additional annual levy every year for the next five years in order to raise $2.53 million for elementary and middle school “maintenance and safety improvements.” If approved, the measure would increase taxes by $9.47 per year to $23.02 annually for a home valued at $100,000.
It would be difficult to argue against most of the improvements itemized by the district, many of which are fundamental safety concerns, are required by law or just make good sense: $125,000 for the installation of fire sprinklers at Meadow Hill Middle School and Cold Springs Elementary; $100,000 to bring various elementary and middle schools into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act; $250,000 for backflow prevention devices, which prevent contamination of the schools’ drinking water supply.
In addition, the building reserve allocates $114,000 for the “Safer Schools” program to expand and upgrade telephone systems in seven elementary schools; $265,000 to replace or repair the roofs at five schools; $75,000 for playground maintenance and upgrades; and other improvements such as heating and plumbing repairs, the installation of underground irrigation systems and new elevators and carpeting. Most of these measures are explained in an eight-minute videotape produced by MCPS which is currently circulating throughout the district.
One item tacked on near the bottom of the list, which is only glossed over in the promotional video but deserves closer scrutiny, is a $258,000 allocation for modular buildings at Mount Jumbo Elementary School. This item falls neither into the category of maintenance nor safety improvements, but instead seems more like a way of getting taxpayers to approve and pay for—perhaps unwittingly—the closure of Prescott Elementary.
At a meeting held Oct. 11 in the Prescott gym, representatives from MCPS laid out for the 60 or so parents in attendance their plans for the “consolidation process” of Prescott and Mount Jumbo schools. According to MCPS documents, enrollment at Mount Jumbo and Prescott schools peaked at 551 students in 1992 and has been in steady decline ever since, with only 404 students enrolled for the 2000-01 school year. This decline is expected to continue to about 353 students by 2003-04, though MCPS Assistant Superintendent Larry Johnson admits that enrollment projections are accurate for only a year or so into the future.
Apparently, the word “closure” is no longer en vogue by district administrators when referring to the dispensation of Missoula elementary schools, having been replaced with more warm and fuzzy nomenclature such as “coupling,” “combining,” “joining together,” or my personal favorite, “bringing our family under one roof.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t about gathering the aunts, uncles and second cousins under one roof for Thanksgiving. What’s at issue is asking voters to approve a measure that closes yet another neighborhood school without explicitly disclosing that intention in the wording of the ballot.
Although Johnson says that decommissioning Prescott is “not a done deal”—closure plans are slated for discussion at a Nov. 30 meeting of the Finance and Operations Committee and should be voted on by the school board on Dec. 12—all indications are that the district is moving ahead with the fall 2001 closure as scheduled. In fact, he says that even if the ballot measure doesn’t pass, the district will likely take out a low-interest INTERCAP loan to pay for the improvements anyway.
Exactly what cost savings are realized by the Prescott closure all depends upon how you do the accounting. According to MCPS estimates, the closure will save the district about $100,000, although part of that purported savings includes a $27,500 salary for a half-time principal at Prescott who was never hired.
Meanwhile, the $258,000 cost for modular classrooms at Mount Jumbo does not include architect, engineer and design fees which, presumably, are included in a separate $100,000 allocation. Also not included are any additional busing costs, if any, utility costs for the new modular classrooms (Johnson says that Prescott will still be maintained by the district) and playground upgrades at Mount Jumbo for the additional student load. As several parents pointed out during the Oct. 11 meeting, these savings will take at least three years to be realized, and perhaps as much as six to eight years.
It should be noted that all of these decisions are being made before anyone knows what the 2001 Legislature will allocate to the district. According to Johnson, the district will be asking for a four percent increase, though he admits, “Even in the best of cases, we’re still going to have a major general fund deficit to deal with. Projections are going to look pretty grim.”
Unfortunately, voters will now be forced to choose between some very necessary upgrades to the district infrastructure and the closure of Prescott. As many parents have pointed out recently, what seems to be lacking is a comprehensive, long-term vision of where the district is heading. Meanwhile, decisions about school closures and consolidations are continually discussed only in the context of looming budget crises and imminent teacher layoffs.
Instead, perhaps it’s time we discuss the value of small neighborhood schools in the context of what it means for student achievement, attendance, curricula, parental involvement and the sense of community. As the MCPS video puts it, “These students deserve an environment that focuses on their needs and enhances their ability to achieve their highest potential.”