School daze 

The ABCs of school closure in Missoula

A boy, yellow hair, grips a crayon, also yellow, in his fist. He sits on his knees in his chair, leaning over a folding table, oblivious to the reception desk bustle behind him, to the cardboard lighthouse flashing on the bulletin board ahead. He scrawls yellow. Peggy Williams, Lowell School secretary, keeps watch. Coloring, this pale boy, maybe six, maybe eight, is mostly quiet. Quite out of the blue, pushing yellow across paper, he issues an ultimatum of sorts, an unfinished proclamation: “When the whistle blows.”

Last month, Missoula County Public Schools announced that its elementary schools need to close a $1.8 million budget deficit for the 2004–2005 school year. Salaries, benefits and retirement costs account for much of the shortage. On March 24, school board trustees will vote on how to balance the budget. Five years ago, the administration asked the board—with three of the same elementary trustees—to solve similar budget problems by closing Emma Dickinson and Roosevelt elementary schools, and once again, the administration is recommending school closures to manage deficits.

Results could vary. Prescott could close, and its students move into Mount Jumbo. Prescott and Mount Jumbo could close, with students moving into Rattlesnake Middle School, and current RMS children could be distributed among other middle schools. Lowell could close and send its students to RMS along with the other two schools. Last week, board members expressed reluctance to close Lowell. Its principal and staff, however, asked that if Prescott and Mount Jumbo move to RMS, Lowell go, too.

In the last 10 years, kindergarten through eighth grade enrollment has declined by almost 1,200 students, or 16 percent district-wide. According to the school district’s projections, it will drop by another 2 percent in the next two years. Elementary enrollment in particular is expected to drop by 41 students, from 3,269 to 3,228. Every student translates into real dollars from the state—about $3,900 per.

Lowell, Prescott and Mount Jumbo are on the chopping block not because closures are part of a long-range plan, not because the proposed closures have been subjected to careful scrutiny and found beneficial, not because the administration believes busing children to larger central schools results in higher quality education, not even because the school district expects to realize long-term financial gain from school closures. It doesn’t. In Missoula, schools close in response to red ink. In 1999, the administration gave board trustees just two weeks to review the option of closing Emma Dickinson. The students and families of Lowell, a school that serves students in one of the lowest income areas in the city—the North and West side neighborhoods north of the river—stand to lose the most.

Lowell school, one of 10 elementary schools in the district, is a stone and brick structure, designed by Missoula architect A.J. Gibson and built in 1909. Currently, 217 children are enrolled. This school does not serve primarily wealthy parents. One indicator of the socioeconomic status of a neighborhood school is the number of children who sign up for free and reduced lunches. At Lowell, that figure is seven out of 10. This is not how principal Jerry McVey puts it. Jerry McVey mutters. He is talking to himself, he explains—“Splash of coffee?”—and lately he’s been talking to himself more and more. McVey, tall, lean, dark goatee, folds his hands behind his head. Three out of 10 students, says McVey, do not sign up for free lunch. McVey, like others discussing poverty, feels uncomfortable. You don’t want to over-generalize, he says: “It hurts people’s feelings.” Yet child poverty, says McVey, is the elephant in the bathroom. And, he says, it’s getting worse. He reaches for a biblical reference: Soon, he says, the very stones will cry out. “It’s a lot easier to teach kids of the middle class,” says McVey. The needs of Lowell students, he says, are great. “They take more work, more dedication,” he says. And, “They break your heart more often”—when a parent is arrested, when there is no money for medication, when he sees a student who never knew a town existed on the south side of the river.

Area median income in the North and West sides averages between $20,000 and $25,000. By comparison, the downtown district averages $35,000. In the Rattlesnake, the figure is between $35,000 and $40,000. Despite residents’ lower income, the North and West side neighborhoods are on the upswing. Neighbors sense the change. The police department verifies it. The crime rate has dropped in the last five or so years, a fact that crime prevention specialist Willie Reed attributes in part to home ownership. The West and North sides have seen at worst a facelift, at best a renaissance.

A number of Missoula organizations have contributed to the renewal. Bob Oaks is executive director of the North Missoula Community Development Corporation (NMCDC). NMCDC and the community built Castle Park, adjacent to Lowell. NMCDC runs a land stewardship program that makes home-buying an option for low-income families. Five young families purchased houses on the North Side’s Whittier Court at the end of 2002. Of those, four families have toddlers. Early this year, NMCDC received two grants totaling $590,000. The money will go toward another development just north of the river—the Clark Fork Commons. Oaks is expecting 25 units and more children. He doesn’t know how many, but like others taking note of the strollers and baby backpacks that come out with the sunshine, he suspects the number of children north of the river is on the rise. “I’ve been joking about the North Side fertility cult,” he says. He wasn’t happy to hear MCPS announce that Lowell might close. “They are pulling the rug out from under us,” he says. “This was like a stealth attack.”

Other organizations have invested in the North and West sides, too, slowly creating the infrastructure to connect to the neighborhoods on the other side of the tracks. The Missoula Redevelopment Agency built a pedestrian bridge in 1998 so that North Side residents could safely walk to the downtown area. In 1999 it built the California Street bridge, which will connect the Clark Fork Commons to the trail system and North and West side neighbors to the south side of the river. Total cost of the bridges is about $3.5 million, which federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality money helped fund. In 2003, homeWORD built the Gold Dust apartments, and aside from the two single resident apartments, each of the 18 units houses children. Early this year, the Human Resource Council received a grant to build 54 units—a mixture of single-family and attached housing—at the north end of Scott, on a 19.5-acre property commonly known as the White Pines development. Director Jim Morton expects the following demographic: “Mainly people who have children.” The Sparrow Group will build 150 rental units, as well as some commercial property, on White Pines. In summer 2000, school board trustee Carol Bellin tried to find a home in the Lowell School area. She failed. Homes were unavailable. Now, though, she takes her child trick-or-treating in the area. It has a good community feel, she says.

If Lowell closes, what do those new families lose? In short, they lose the ability to participate in their children’s education. A school is no longer walking distance away. Transportation is a key factor for lower income parents, says Peter Hance, who directs the Missoula Housing Authority. Many clients rent units from the MHA on the West Side or receive rental assistance. Most of the MHA’s clients—80 percent—earn less than 30 percent of the area median income. Many are parents working 40 hours each week for $6 or $6.50 an hour. “Many depend on public transportation,” says Hance. “Transportation is parent-teacher conferences,” he says. “Transportation is going to the after school concert or activities.” When a school isn’t within walking distance, odds are good that some parents will be unable to show.

Betsy Hands, with homeWORD, agrees. “When I have people who are struggling, a lot of it depends on whether their car is working,” she says. “[Transportation is] such a key to people’s ability to have self-sufficiency.”

In October 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency released a study, “Travel and Environmental Implications of School Siting.” The report is clear: The size, design and location of schools impact a community’s educational, environmental and physical health as well as community character, traffic congestion and neighborhood vitality. “In response,” says the study, “many states and communities are looking for ways to keep schools in their neighborhoods, close to students and the communities they serve.”

Not Missoula. One administration proposal is that children from Lowell, Prescott and Mount Jumbo be bused up to Rattlesnake Middle School. Children currently at Rattlesnake Middle School would be bused elsewhere. There is no clear plan for their distribution. The proposal would result in what Oaks describes as “an insanity of busing.” The monetary costs of busing remain unknown—but, administrators say, the cost of busing is separate from the general fund, which trustees are working to balance.

“What this school district has become good at,” says former Emma Dickinson parent Bill Comstock, “is how to move small human bodies around efficiently.”

The school district simply raises taxes to accommodate transportation to and from school, because it can. The social and environmental costs of busing aren’t a priority for the administration.

Deb Halliday, for one, prefers her children walk. “It’s a dream for me to have my girls walk to school,” says Halliday. Halliday is rooted in the neighborhood. She’s lived on the West Side for seven years. She sits in an armchair in her living room, where her two children were born. She has two placentas buried in her yard, just two blocks away from Castle Park and Lowell School. “Smile mom,” says Mae, age 3. Halliday pastes a grin on her face: “I’m smiling as I talk about something fairly bleak.”

Halliday doesn’t want her child to attend a school with 600 other students—the size of Rattlesnake Middle School if the three elementary schools up for closure were combined there. “I have an image of Mae walking Hannah to school the first day, and holding hands,” she says. She wants her children to be safe, to have a context for their place in the community. Halliday calls her dreams “parochial,” but they are also part of the reason she purchased a home. “A big reason we’re staying in this neighborhood is we’re counting on Lowell School being open.” She has outgrown her home, but considers expanding it. If Lowell closes, she would reconsider. Halliday has larger concerns, too. Pulling the school out of the neighborhood, she says, is going to alienate the public’s support for public schools. Inevitably, she says, some families will scrape together the money to send children to private school. And her concerns are for the city, too. “Schools need to see themselves as part of the growth and change in the community,” she says. Mae waves a magic wand goodbye.

Emma Dickinson in the River Road neighborhood closed in 1999, along with Roosevelt between Brooks and Stephens. A catholic school now rents Roosevelt. Emma Dickinson houses an adult learning center run by the district. Classrooms are filled with computers. Porcelain drinking fountains mounted low give clues that the structure was formerly for children. Half of Emma Dickinson’s former students now attend Hawthorne. And Hawthorne, despite the principal’s insistence to the contrary, looks crowded. Vacuum cleaners line the hallways. Convenient for custodians, says Principal Steve McHugh. Mop buckets, playground equipment and library stacking carts with dozens of sets of encyclopedias rest along the brick walls. Desks sit in the hall, some stacked one on top of another. Some are used, says McHugh. They’re for foster grandparents working with children. One wall along the library is packed with computers. A logical setup, says McHugh, because the librarian is also the technology person. Sure, they’d like more space, he says, but wouldn’t any organization? Unsolicited, a child, doing schoolwork in the hall, says, “We have too many kids here.”

The district predicts that enrollment will decline in the next two years, as it has over the past 10. Birth rates and current attendance predict enrollment. The district’s projections, however, do not include households that rent, or infill development. Superintendent Jim Clark holds up the Canyon Creek development near the airport as one reason why infill isn’t counted: Out of 100 homes in the Canyon Creek neighborhood, the school district identified just 10 school-age children. But critics of closing schools point to the young families attracted to the affordable housing cropping up on the North and West sides, whose 3-year-olds will be school-age in just a couple years.

Since 1985, here are the results of the district’s enrollment projections: Jefferson, Willard, Emma Dickinson and Roosevelt have closed. All schools are in low or modest income neighborhoods. At the same time, Paxson, in the University district, was rebuilt in 1992 for $4 million. Leslie Wood, a parent and member of Lowell’s PTA, puts it bluntly: “They wouldn’t dare consider closing Paxson.” In 1991, when district elementary enrollment had peaked at over 4,000, the board voted to build Chief Charlo in the South Hills. That cost $4.7 million. District administrator Dan Parrish wasn’t employed by the district when Chief Charlo was built, but he believes the other elementary schools would likely have been able to accommodate the increase in South Hills students; they would have been “plumb full,” he says. Now, even a Chief Charlo parent is angry at the proposed closures of other schools. Keith Fank, who has two children at Chief Charlo, fails to understand how Missoula has a brand new jail but can’t support its schools. He wouldn’t like to see his children bused across town, and he does not support the closure of schools in other neighborhoods: “Kids should get to go to school with kids in their neighborhood and kind of grow up with them instead of getting shuffled because somebody can’t handle the books.”

Jim Clark, who was not the superintendent when Chief Charlo went up, only guesses at why the school was built while the district closed schools in lower income neighborhoods: “In most communities, the board looks at where the children are or anticipates where they’re going to be.”

In work sessions, administrators discuss school closures in financial terms. Lowell, Prescott and Mount Jumbo become a line item—together worth about $170,000. Moving Rattlesnake Middle School children to new schools would save about $325,000, mostly in salaries. The savings would be a one-time gain, used to close the deficit for the 2004–2005 school year. The district would have to spend around $150,000 to remodel Rattlesnake Middle School to accommodate the new students. Like busing, though, costs for construction come from a different fund, say administrators.

No one wants to close schools, but without more children, it’s an option the administration must explore.

“One thing that is hard for people to understand is when I’m at this point in my job, I have to look at this as a business,” says Clark. “Anybody in the business world does what I’m doing. They look at their resources, they look at what their employee costs are, they look at their inventory costs.”

Fewer children mean fewer dollars to pay teachers, to pay energy bills, to purchase supplies. The district’s elementary schools are at about 86 percent occupancy. Closing even Prescott, the smallest school in the district, would take capacity to 90 percent. Trustee Suzette Dussault worries that the administration’s recommendations leave little room for growth.

Clark would like more kids so that closures weren’t on the table at all. But he points to the board as the body that will eventually decide how to close the deficit, and where to educate over 3,000 elementary school children.

Some board trustees, though, feel grossly ill-equipped to make the decisions the administration is asking of them.

At last Thursday night’s work session, trustee Carol Bellin repeatedly called for more concrete budget information. “I’m still trying to understand how we will balance the budget on the 24th,” she said. Administrators present their recommendations on a spreadsheet with corresponding financial figures, but trustee Naomi DeMarinis observes that the options look similar to previous “menus” the administrators provided. Trustees’ ideas have not been included. Before the meeting, trustee Colleen Rogers expresses frustration that she does not receive budget packets 48 hours before meetings as requested. She has no time to prepare. “I have no information,” she says. “I find that appalling.” In her frustration, Rogers becomes facetious about the conditions under which trustees are asked to budget: “Just put a paper bag over my head and we’ll budget from here.”

Especially frustrating, Rogers says, is the fact that the options before her are ones that research does not support. “I have yet to see research that shows or supports that low SES [socio-economic status] kids achieve as well in bigger schools,” she say. Bellin asks that the communities that would be most affected by the cuts be involved from the ground up in any proposal that would so severely affect them—taking away their small neighborhood school versus busing their children to what the district calls a larger “attendance center.”

At last week’s budget work session trustees repeated requests for information. Administrators made it clear that trustees should trust the recommendations of the administration. Your leaders, your budget team, your educational experts, says Clark, are putting forth these recommendations. One core group of board members trusts the leadership. Other trustees find it difficult to work within the administration’s narrowly defined parameters. Most frustrating for some is that they believe administrators pit two big-ticket items—school closures and program cuts—against each other. The lack of a long-range plan, says Rogers, means that there is no guarantee that the district won’t find itself in the same financial position next year, cutting the programs it’s attempting to save this year. Bellin points out that some of the program cuts aren’t exclusive: The administration is recommending cutting at least two programs district-wide—elementary art and fifth grade band and orchestra—along with schools. The money might be available elsewhere in the budget, in a series of smaller cuts, but trustees haven’t seen a complete set of options. Trustee Dussault not only believes the budget has wiggle room, she believes the cuts don’t need to be as deep as administrators are calling for. Maybe $600,000 is needed, says Dussault—one third of the $1.8 million under request. And she believes it is her obligation as a trustee to explore all the options. But she has run up against a brick wall. “We are asked to do so many things without even the most rudimentary information or time to make the decision,” she says.

One option administrators aren’t jumping to explore is cuts at the top. Some parents point fingers at Clark’s salary. Clark is the second-highest-paid superintendent in Montana, paid more than the mayor of Missoula. But Missoula is quick to begrudge a healthy salary. The tragedy isn’t that one person lives well, and it isn’t that lopping even half of the superintendent’s salary from the budget would make a significant dent in the deficit. A superintendent earning $109,000 makes recommendations that affect the lives of people who struggle to pay the bill for a broken vehicle.

Last Thursday, board members expressed concern about closing Lowell. After their comments, Principal McVey spoke up. On behalf of himself and other Lowell staff, and before receiving input from Lowell parents, he asked the school board to close Lowell if it intended to close Prescott and Mount Jumbo. Shouldn’t Lowell’s principal be the biggest champion for the school? “I am being just that,” he says. “I don’t want them left hanging like Prescott [which has been threatened with closure for years].” The parents on the West and North sides, and the students, might need that school the most, but McVey sees declining enrollments and he doesn’t see an end. He admits that in an ideal world, Lowell would never close. But he is unwilling to fight for the school to remain open. If the end must come for Lowell, McVey hopes that it comes swiftly.

He has worked in the district too long—24 years—to be optimistic. He points to his sweater. It’s purple, blue and green. He remembers wearing it when Prescott was supposed to close. “There are holes in this sweater,” he says.

The larger problem, many believe, is one of legislative funding. The Montana Quality of Education Coalition has sued the state, alleging that Montana fails to fund education at an acceptable level. The trial opened in January, and is expected to be resolved in 2005. The suit requests that the state define quality education and then fund it adequately. Missoula County Public Schools have joined the suit, and Clark and trustees have hope that the lawsuit will be resolved in favor of the schools. Clark saw a similar suit succeed in Wyoming. In 1995, the Wyoming Supreme Court mandated that Wyoming adequately fund education, which the court had found lacking. In Montana, though, real dollars would still be years away, says Clark.

On Monday night, the administration and principal heard questions from Lowell parents. The meeting was scheduled to last from 7:00 to 8:30. At 8:24 p.m., McVey read his letter asking the administration and board to close Lowell if Prescott and Mount Jumbo are closed. The principal and 14 other Lowell staff signed. Anna Jones, who sent five children to Lowell, said she has been fighting for the school since 1958. “I’m just devastated that our teachers would do this to us,” she says. Then, to a teacher: “I’m sorry, Kathleen.”

According to Jones, “This [school] is the only thing that has held all these people together for a lot of years.” Lowell is sandwiched between administrator recommendations and principal and staff requests. Many board members don’t want to see Lowell close. Some, without information they have requested to do due diligence, feel they are blindly forced into making a rash decision on behalf of the school district. North and West side neighbors see signs that more families, and more children, are becoming a part of the neighborhood. They’d like a school to be a part of the neighborhood, too. Research supports their perspective. It shows that a small neighborhood school like Lowell can give students in a lower socioeconomic group the leg up they need before entering middle school. But a vision for education—and one that accounts for what some refer to as a “hostile funding environment”—is missing. In Missoula, the decision to close schools is made at the behest of the bottom line.

At Lowell, the boy with the yellow crayon stares at a lunch tray—apples, mashed potatoes and gravy. Secretary Peggy Williams, who in 20 years has seen children of children of children pass through the halls, says that staff believe the school might actually close. “People are a little apprehensive,” says Williams. But apprehension is nothing new. “Spring in the district,” says Williams, “is always that way.”

Contact the reporter: kszpaller@missoulanews.com

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