Ordinarily, elections do not creep upon us surreptitiously. Generally speaking, they are noisy, ungainly beasts that kick up lots of dirt and mud, bellow loudly (through megaphones and on the telephone during dinner hour) and leave in their wake the telltale droppings of lawn signs and glossy doorknob placards that bullet-type the candidates’ strengths and accomplishments alongside the obligatory photo with spouse, children and family dog.
So what gives? This year’s Missoula County Public School board election is less than a month off but has barely registered a blip on the civic radar screen. Certainly, last year’s battle over school closures demonstrated how passionate and vocal Missoula residents are about neighborhood schools. And yet, if even that polarizing issue couldn’t spark a voter turnout higher than 1999’s paltry 16 percent, it appears we’re headed for another stealth election. There are, however, good reasons why the May 2 election matters.
First, as most homeowners know, school boards play a major role in determining our property taxes. Currently, the MCPS general fund amounts to about $40 million—in comparison, the general fund for the City of Missoula is only $26 million—which means that board decisions are as significant and far-reaching for those without school-aged children as those with them. Yet school board activity rarely receives the public scrutiny afforded to, say, City Council meetings, in part because for a long time school board meetings were held during the daytime, when most working people could not attend.While school closures may sound like yesterday’s news, the fact remains that Prescott Elementary School is slated for closure at the end of the 2000-01 school year, which will likely become another bone of contention on the new board. Like Emma Dickinson and Roosevelt last year, the closure of Prescott was sold to Missoula residents as a cost-savings measure brought about by decreases in elementary school enrollment, and as a way to ensure smaller class sizes and higher teacher salaries in the future.
In fact, MCPS enrollment figures released just last week reveal that elementary school enrollments are up from a year ago. As for class size, fourth and fifth grades classes are reportedly smaller this year, but K-2 classes are larger, and some parents have already complained about overcrowding at Hawthorne Elementary.
According to Bruce Moyer, executive director of business services for MCPS, the district saved $442,558 by closing Dickinson and Roosevelt, which included salary and health insurance savings for teachers, principals, librarians, custodians and other miscellaneous services no longer needed.
What those figures don’t include are the costs incurred for school consolidation, such as added bus routes and construction costs for reconfiguring buildings and classrooms to accommodate more students at Paxson and Hawthorne. Moyer admits that no tally of those added expenses was ever made or reported to the board. In fact, critics charge that cost estimates and reports given to the board on past building and remodeling projects, such as the $35,000 renovation of the district’s Sixth Street offices in 1997, never included the cost of labor, permits or architect’s fees, only materials.
There are, of course, other hidden costs that are not factored into the school closure accounting formula: the social cost of disconnecting children and their parents from neighborhood schools, the additional behavioral and staff problems that result from crowded classrooms, the reduced involvement of low- and moderate-income parents who often don’t have the time or the means of transportation to attend school events, and the sprawl-inducing policy of abandoning inner-city schools while simultaneously building new ones in outlying areas.
A study released in February by the Rural School and Community Trust, a non-profit educational organization, studied school districts in four states: Montana, Georgia, Ohio and Texas. It found that maintaining smaller schools reduces the damaging effects of poverty on student achievement. The report concluded that “In Montana, there is strong evidence that smaller schools outperform larger schools at all levels of community poverty” and that “Montana’s commitment to small schools has worked well to cultivate academic excellence in its least affluent communities.”
Similar research conducted in recent years supports the benefits of maintaining small neighborhood schools in urban cores, from truancy and dropout rates to sprawl reduction and neighborhood vitality. Meanwhile, MCPS seems to be headed in the opposite direction.
“We’re making the same mistakes that the rest of the country made 20 years ago and the rest of the country is busily trying to undo,” says Scott, about last year’s school closures. “And it’s costing us a lot of money.”
Assuming Prescott closes its doors next year (not yet a done deal), the Rattlesnake area will be without an elementary school, requiring those students who now walk or bike to school to ride buses elsewhere. Not exactly in keeping with the priorities outlined by Mayor Mike Kadas and County Commissioner Bill Carey in their State of Missoula addresses, not to mention virtually every city and county planning document, which emphasize smart growth, urban infill, less motorized traffic, less sprawl and more walkable and livable streets.