School ties 

MCPS struggles to stop potential pink slips

The Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) Board of Trustees terminated contracts with roughly 12 non-tenured employees last week as part of an annual personnel restructuring. These pink slips, while far from unusual, highlight growing concerns over job security in the district. MCPS officials believe additional layoffs could be possible, despite incoming federal stimulus money.

The problem is part budget sob story, part dashed hope. Just under 90 percent of the MCPS budget comes from enrollment-based funding, and student numbers have declined dramatically the past few years. The district dropped 267 students overall from April 2008 alone.

To meet the budget shortfall, MCPS Business Services Director Pat McHugh says the district needs to secure multiple levies placed on next month’s school board ballot. Just to reach last year’s high school operating budget, for instance, McHugh says a $52,375 levy must pass.

At the same time enrollment’s decreased and caused a budget shortfall, teacher retirements have also declined. McHugh says one high school teacher retired within the last year—compared to 10 the year before—leaving more teachers to be paid with less money.

“We’re seeing far less retirements than we have in the past,” McHugh says. “I think people aren’t retiring in as high numbers because of the economy.”

Seeley-Swan High School provides an extreme example of the budget woes that have the district desperate for a solution. In the last five years, enrollment has dropped from nearly 170 to 95. The district recently cut two staff positions, including a study hall supervisor, and scaled back the English program. Principal Tom Korst’s salary was reduced from full-time to part-time. He also teaches two classes.

“I think anytime you lose money it’s definitely a difficult situation, but I’m glad to have a job,” Korst says.

According to Human Resources Director Larry Johnson, elementary schools are stable, but the district is discussing six additional Full Time Equivalent (FTE) reductions in high school staff based solely on declining enrollment. That’s not to say MCPS will outright fire six employees, but it at least translates to serious pay cuts.

“They certainly could find classes and things to do…,” says Johnson, stressing there’s still a need to hold onto the teachers, “but we’re not in that budget climate.”

MCPS officials point to historic under-funding from the state as a main problem, and the current economic climate only makes things worse. On April 8, the Montana Legislature voted to back-fill—to the tune of $32 million—a shortfall in a K-12 entitlement increase using stimulus money, likely building a deficit into 2012 school budgets statewide. This move follows legislators’ $10 million cut to annual At-Risk Student program payments.

With the state slashing the education budget and the need for such a large staff decreasing, more layoffs appear inevitable. It’s an attack on two fronts, and McHugh says the district is simply trying to maintain.

“We try and keep and will likely keep all tenured staff,” McHugh says. “But our non-tenured staff, not all of them may be kept.”

Some officials believed the federal stimulus package could offer immediate relief, but spending strictures passed down from Washington, D.C., make it little more than a fiscal Band Aid.

Allocation is a tricky operation. Once stimulus dollars hit Helena, state legislators stitch them into a handful of poverty- and special education-based federal programs. The funds can’t be used directly to cover staff salaries or raises, but they can free up general budget dollars normally used to fill gaps in those same federal programs.

“It would have been nice and convenient for us if the federal government would say, ‘Here’s a million dollars. You can take it to hire new people and expand your science offerings and your math offerings and do all kinds of good things,’” Johnson says. “Well, they didn’t do that. What they did is put the money through existing channels.”

The chief beneficiary in the state’s education stimulus is Title 1, a federal program for high-poverty schools. For MCPS, that money provides services like free and reduced lunches for impoverished students at Lowell Elementary. Without devaluing the importance of Title 1, McHugh says more relaxed restrictions could be the key to saving jobs, but the odds don’t look good.

For now, MCPS is reducing textbook and staff development expenses to save money. McHugh says despite declining enrollment, it’s vital the district do whatever it can to retain its current staff. A wide selection of high-quality educators is key to MCPS meeting its mission statement of increasing student achievement.

“We’re going to make every effort to keep our staff intact,” McHugh says. “There’s a certain inevitability [of reductions] when you have such large enrollment declines, but you have to minimize their impact on students.”

Those with educators’ interests at heart sympathize with the desire to keep staff on the payroll. Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, a union representing Montana educators and other state employees, recognizes MCPS is in a bind. While stimulus money offers at best a chance to maintain quality programs, he knows it doesn’t translate to job security for all.

“I think we’re all in the same stew and it’s boiling,” Feaver says. “I think we’re all trying to figure out how we can jump out with the greater good intact.”
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