During last Thursday morning’s wee hours, Missoula County Public Schools Elementary School Board Trustees voted on how to close the budget deficit. The board voted to close Rattlesnake Middle School and Prescott and Mount Jumbo elementaries. Lowell elementary remains open. The decisions didn’t come easily—the board deliberated for almost eight hours.
Trustee David Merrill cast the deciding vote. Earlier in the evening, he had not been in favor of closures, but he couldn’t find alternatives among the existing options. The state and federal government, he says, need to increase funding for schools.
The pressure to avoid delaying the decision was high. “The personnel office was pressing us to make a decision that night,” Merrill says. Once the school district knows its budget, it can recruit and hire for the following school year. The remaining public schools want to recruit and hire as early as possible.
Merrill’s term expires this spring, and he will not seek re-election. Three elementary trustee seats are up for election. In the past, decisions to close Prescott have been reversed once newly elected board members have taken their seats.
Lesli Brassfield, public information officer for Missoula Public Schools, does not anticipate any reversals in the board’s decision.
Trustee Colleen Rogers, who voted against the three school closures, doesn’t believe the cycle of vote-changing that the district has seen in the past works to the district’s benefit. She reviews the cycle in short: The administrators make recommendations, the board votes, then elections take place and a new board reverses the former board’s decisions. Start again from scratch, repeat ad infinitum.
Rogers will seek reelection; “I see it can be so much different,” she says. She has been perusing other districts’ websites, including that of Great Falls, which includes non-administrators in its budget-planning teams, and begins planning for budget deficits well in advance. Next time around, Rogers suggests the district consider following a similar model. “I can see us not having to anguish so much over the budgeting,” she says.