The end is near 

Roosevelt faces death by budget cuts

Grade school may take the fall for district's money troubles

Parents and kids at Roosevelt School are mad as hell -- angry enough, in fact, to go to school on a holiday.

In steady Martin Luther King Day snows, about 30 parents and kids held a picket at the edge of the school grounds, brandishing protest signs at passing cars, hoping to save Missoula's smallest public school from the ax.

They were there because the school has been targeted as part of $1.6 million in budget cuts needed during the next two years. Their anger, mounting through months of speculation about the school's future, erupted this week after Missoula County Public Schools' Superintendent Mary Vagner recommended, at a school board meeting, that Roosevelt be closed.

While parents gear up to try to defeat the proposal by the Feb. 26 decision deadline, district officials say demographic shifts in Missoula County dictate that a central-city school take the fall. Such arguments haven't quelled parents' resentment.

"Why don't you ask Mary Vagner if she'd like to take a pay cut?" one protesting mother pointedly suggested to a reporter. "I'm sure we could use the money."

District officials, for their part, say desperate times call for desperate measures -- and that the situation is indeed grave. Elementary school enrollment, the basis for determining how much money each district gets from the state, is down 622 students, or 14.4 percent, since the beginning of the decade. Shortfalls in state funding have forced the Missoula district to cut nearly $2 million from the budget since 1994.

In the face of such a money crunch, Vagner (whose annual salary of $84,832 is just 1/20th the size of the looming budget deficit), says there is little choice but to close and rent out both Roosevelt and Jefferson schools. (Jefferson houses the district's fine arts and bilingual education programs.)

"One does not arrive at a decision like this without a great deal of anxiety," Vagner says. "Roosevelt is a viable school in a viable community that serves 211 children very well.

"You can't cut $3.6 million out of the budget without significant impacts across the board. This is not a Band-Aid. We have to balance the budget, and our only chance for a change will come in the 1999 state legislature."

The budget figures Vagner submitted to the board last Thursday indicate that keeping all current elementary schools open would lead to deep cuts in programs across the district. In order to stave off losses in teaching staff, extracurricular activities, library aids and programs such as fine arts, it seems, one elementary school must close.

The administration cites a variety of reasons for pulling the plug on Roosevelt. Neighborhood demographics, based on the district's in-house database, show the Roosevelt area has the lowest number of kids per household at eight per 100. Very little new housing is being built in the area, and 1990 census figures reveal that nearly 50 percent of surrounding properties are rentals, which tend to house fewer elementary-age kids.

According to Vagner, the district projects a continued decline in enrollment during the next four years, even as the county's population grows.

"We haven't seen the surge in extended families or younger children or relatives moving in with these new people. Also, people are moving in outside the city," she says. Vagner adds that these factors ratchet up the pressure to close a school like Roosevelt in the face of the budget crisis.

The angry parents aren't buying it for a minute.

"Closing Roosevelt is just a temporary solution," says Steve Hintz, president of the Roosevelt PTA. "If you look at the numbers for 1999 and 2000, they look almost exactly the same even if you close a school." Hintz supports an option that would keep all the elementary schools open for the next two years. To make up the difference, that plan calls for extensive teacher and program cuts.

Hintz challenges both the district's demographics and the conclusions based on those numbers. He and other parents say 1990 census data is too old to be accurate; they cite anecdotal evidence that the neighborhood is going through a renaissance, and conclude that closing Roosevelt could have a devastating impact on the surrounding neighborhood.

"This certainly wouldn't be positive for the area," Hintz says. "It's going through a rebirth right now, with young families moving in, investing in their homes. Our fear is that with the school gone it could become a neighborhood that's not attractive to those people.

"If we can present the board with some facts of our own, I'd hope we can persuade them. Some of the numbers they're using are eight years old, and there have been just a lot of young families moving into the area recently."

Hintz adds that, at least to some Roosevelt parents, slashing programs is preferable to losing neighborhood schools.

Roosevelt, built in 1956, is in good shape physically. According to Principal Joe Staudahar, none of its rooms go unused by the 211 students and 20 or so teachers. Still, Staudahar says district-wide program cuts shouldn't be made lightly.

"These choices are important, as difficult as they are," he says. "The programs we've enjoyed in Missoula's schools -- fine arts, music, PE, all with specialized teachers -- are at risk if we don't cut in other areas.

"It's not quite this simplistic, but it almost boils down to closures versus programs."

Lucas Condor, a third-grader at Roosevelt school, joins other kids and their parents in a Martin Luther King Day protest of plans to close the elementary school. Photo by Jeff Powers.

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