School's Out? 

Classroom Conflict

As officials consider closing schools, parents and politicans battle over Missoula's future.


Janet Scott is trying again.

On an early February Wednesday, 200 or so people-parents, teachers, activists and politicians-crowd the cafeteria of Sentinel High School, face to face with Missoula County Public Schools' board of elected volunteers. The district, charged with educating the vast majority of Garden City kids, has suffered years of declining elementary school enrollment and funding. And in the oft-repeated words of Superinten-dent Mary Vagner, the board has trimmed and trimmed, and the trimmings are gone.

Now, with the district on the verge of recommending that the board close down three schools, months of effort are coming to a head for Scott and many others who want all schools kept open. Scott, who boasts 20 years of teaching experience, rarely misses an opportunity to champion the small neighborhood school as a model of old-fashioned values, community involvement and educational quality.

Hawthorne parent Paul Haber addresses a meeting of parents from across Missoula.

Since last spring, when Roosevelt School narrowly escaped the axe, the MCPS administration has moved steadily toward this year's recommendation that Roosevelt, Hawthorne and Prescott schools all close down. Just as inexorably, a loose but impassioned coalition has arisen to oppose the closing of schools, made up of people who argue that the administration-and much of the board-is insensitive to the needs of Missoula's kids, parents and neighborhoods.

Janet Scott is one of those who want to steer the district on a different course. She and others in the debate have complained over the last few months that the board doesn't give them a fair hearing, that, in some minds at least, school closure is a foregone conclusion. In the midst of a stream of comments from this night's crowd, Scott approaches the mic once again.

"I don't believe school closure is about money," Scott says. "I think it's about a difference of opinion, a difference of philosophy."

Scott and others contend that the administration has decided that schools like Roosevelt and Hawthorne, which each serve fewer than 230 students, are ineffective. More than one board member, however, takes great exception to the idea that there is such a prejudice.

"There's no plot to get rid of small schools here," insists trustee Greg Tollefson.

Jan Guffin, seated on the other end of the board's table from Tollefson, is less circumspect. "I'm tired of sitting up here being misquoted by you," she erupts after Scott takes her seat. "I'm tired of sitting up here and being insulted. If you want us to bury our heads in the sand, fine. Maybe you should run for school board and bury your head in the sand."

Ostrich metaphors aside, the heated exchange during the February 3 board meeting showcases two strikingly different theories on how to escape from the same abyss. Missoula County Public Schools have nearly 800 fewer elementary students than they did at the start of the '90s. And it's the student population that determines how much funding a school district gets. Meanwhile, the state government, preoccupied with building prisons and killing bison, has provided next to nothing in aid. These factors combine to make balancing Missoula's education budget a contentious task.

In the administration's view, the predicament creates a stark choice: close some of the smaller schools or slash programs like fine arts, gym and gifted education. If some schools could be closed, the argument goes, class sizes could be made more uniform across the district, resources distributed more fairly, and hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in programs that have been cut to the bone during the recent fiscal drought.

Vagner's recommendation, therefore, which was laid on the table two weeks ago, would close Hawthorne and Roosevelt this year and phase out Prescott, a small building in the lower Rattlesnake that now hosts just fourth- and fifth-graders, in a few years.

But Janet Scott and others doggedly insist that there is another way of looking at the district's problems, one that prizes the virtues of small, down-home schools. It is, perhaps, a more holistic view than that of the administration-administrators say, more holistic than they can afford. In this outlook, schools are the heart of vital neighborhood communities, and closing them rips the heart out of those communities.

With various deadlines, legal and fiscal, pressing a politically divided board towards a decision within the next few weeks, these two competing visions of Missoula's future are headed for a reckoning.

The Case for Closure

The district's administration has produced reams of paper documenting the sharp fall in student population this decade. It has invited local economists to school board sessions to explain shifting demographics, an aging country, a new era in education that comes with new demands. One piece of the evidence, however, stands out as a bare-bones depiction of Missoula schools' plight.

The simple demographics map from the U.S. Department of Education has a long, academic title, but it might as well be called "Where the Kids Aren't." Using various shades of white and gray, it predicts which states will gain elementary-age students and which will not over the next ten years. The southwestern states, led of course by California, are due for increases of more than ten percent. So is Idaho. But the map shows a huge swath of middle America, starting down in Louisiana and funneling upward to include Montana, losing students.

Ironically, this decline comes at the same time that the Rocky Mountain states have become the fastest-growing region in the country, driving the development that makes many Missoulians so nervous. According to Larry Swanson, an economist who works at the University of Montana's Center for the Rocky Mountain West, the problem for schools is that the people moving here aren't likely to have young children.

Prescott Elementary School principal Jerry McVay stands in the hallway which doubles as the school library. The Missoula County Public School Administration has recommended closing the school in a few years.

The MCPS administration invited Swanson and Jim Sylvester, another economist, to a board meeting in January. Swanson and Sylvester sketched a future in which Missoula is a much older city, a haven for retirees where housing and caring for the elderly are major pillars of the economy. Sylvester's projections are dramatic: He says that by 2010, there will be 1,000 fewer kids under the age of six in Missoula; but there will be 6,000 more people over 70.

"We're entering a period when we have a shifting population," Swanson says. "The composition and structure of education has to change to adapt. It has to become a more seamless system that carries people through their lives."

To Vagner's way of thinking, bringing the dwindling population of elementary students together in more centralized, larger schools not only prepares the district for further declines, but also makes room for the broader, more flexible educational culture Swanson suggests. She points to Willard School, an antiquated building in the Southside neighborhood, just blocks from Roosevelt, to answer her opponents' concerns that closing a school invites Missoula's own version of inner-city blight.

Willard ceased to be an elementary school in 1990. Since then, it has become the home of the district's Adult Education program, which served a huge chunk of the city last year, with 2,476 students signing up for fall classes. More than 400 of those nontraditional learners sought basic literacy and math skills, while 88 pursued a high school diploma and nearly 600 brushed up on computer skills.

"Is it empty and filled with graffiti?" Vagner asks. "No. Is it providing a vital community resource? Yes."

School board chairman Mike Kupilik, a University of Montana professor, also points out that closed schools can continue to serve as civic focal points even after kids have gone.

"Since I've been a board member, and right before I came on the board, a number of schools have closed," Kupilik says of his 12 years on the board. "Whittier is home to Head Start now, Willard houses Adult Education and is booked beyond capacity. Central School is the Missoula Children's Theatre now. Lincoln is a Baptist Church. No building we've closed stands idle. I disagree with that idea that we'll close a school and it'll turn into something abandoned and dilapidated with bums lighting fires inside it. That just won't happen."

Meanwhile, according to the administration's plan, shifting Hawthorne's 223 kids and Roosevelt's 198, along with some other cuts, would allow the district to put money back into the classroom. The state Legislature seems (finally) likely to give elementary districts around the state a boost, perhaps as much as a four-percent spending increase. Federal money aimed at reducing class sizes is on the way. The details of such funding have yet to be worked out. Vagner and Kupilik, though, both say that the district has a chance to shore up its performance in the classroom.

"Without additional state support throughout the '90s, we've been lucky just to balance at zero," Vagner says. "Now, when it looks like there might be some money coming out of the state government, this is a planning opportunity."

"This board has listed two priorities: Maintaining the integrity of our educational programs and keeping low student-teacher ratios," Kupilik adds. "We're circling the wagons around those two things, and we may have to sacrifice bricks to do it."

The board is not unanimous on the necessity of this sacrifice, but Kupilik says a majority is prepared to bite the bullet and take the unpopular step of closing schools. "Of the seven elementary trustees, only two have sworn undying opposition," he says.

Undying Opposition

Missoula is a city that prides itself on the depth and breadth of its civic involvement, and the debate over schools packs 'em in. While the City Council might see 200 would-be haranguers once every few months when a red-hot issue rears up, all of the many meetings about schools held over the last few weeks have drawn big crowds.

On February 1, more than 120 parents from all over the district gathered at Hawthorne School to take in testimony and to brainstorm possible alternative solutions to the schools' budget mess. The meeting, monitored closely by a trained mediator, followed a so-called "fishbowl" format designed to keep the discussion positive and generate as many ideas as possible. Kupilik and most school board trustees turned out, and Assistant Superintendent Larry Johnson attended on behalf of the otherwise-engaged Vagner.

In two hours of discussion, every corner of the city, from the working-class Westside to the upwardly mobile University district, was heard from. And whether a given speaker's kids attended Paxson on Higgins Avenue or Franklin on South 19th West, the gist was the same, that the school board should scratch and dig for new solutions, and keep schools open if at all possible.

School board meetings have become so heated as of late, the administration brought in professional mediator Bev Morse to teach the basics of peaceful discussion.

In general, the argument against closing schools goes like this: Accessible, personal neighborhood schools make it possible for younger families to move into affordable parts of the city; if a neighborhood school closes, the surrounding area loses its social cohesion; moving students to larger schools farther away damages parents' ability to stay involved with their kids' education. All told, opponents' worries often go above and beyond educational concerns to include more abstract aspects of Missoula's future, like the fate of the city's social fabric and urban core.

"I really see this as almost a biological issue," says Craig Rayle, a Roosevelt parent who stood unsuccessfully for school board last April. "There are a lot of younger people with kids moving into the Roosevelt neighborhood and a lot of older people who are finally giving up their houses. It's a cool neighborhood, a lot less expensive than a lot of other areas of the city. You can walk just about anywhere, get anything you need on foot. There's a real danger that we could lose all that."

Rayle and others argue that closing Roosevelt is a sure way to damage a vibrant, affordable neighborhood. Worse still, he and others say, closing schools in the center of the city will only encourage urban sprawl, rampant residential development around the edges of town that the recently adopted Urban Comprehensive Plan seeks to discourage. The plan, overwhelmingly approved by both the City Council and County Commission last spring, calls for the city to rely on its existing infrastructure, including schools, and fill in gaps in the city center before pushing out. This particular wrinkle of the ever-more-complex schools situation attracts interest from far beyond the circle of parents, like Rayle, who have an obvious vested interest.

Lin and Judy Smith, the sisters who share the job of coordinating the city's new neighborhood councils, also share the view that preserving neighborhood schools is vital to furthering urban planning efforts.

"Their whole approach, of course, is that you have to cut programs or cut schools," says Judy Smith. "We don't necessarily agree with that."

"The schools targeted are in affordable parts of town, parts of town where young families can buy houses," Lin Smith adds. "We found last year that the kindergarten at Roosevelt was very large, that there was a shift going in the neighborhood. If you close those schools, what happens to those families' desire to move into that neighborhood?"

Similar questions have been posed by some elected officials. Members of the City Council have attended meetings of Save Neighborhood Schools, an anti-closure group, and County Commissioner Michael Kennedy first raised the notion of a community-wide, blue-ribbon committee on schools in a December letter to the board. While Kupilik accused Kennedy of butting in where he wasn't wanted, Kennedy says he stands by his letter. He also suggests that closing schools will have long-term impacts not only on surrounding neighborhoods, but on the district's political standing.

"Community vitality is extremely important to any planning effort, be it schools or land use," Kennedy says. "If someone could accurately weigh the costs closing schools will have on these neighborhoods, the value of inner-city vitality would overcome any economic downside to keeping them open."

Beyond concerns over development and community vitality, though, many members of the public pose questions about what exactly the district's priorities are. Some, like Scott, Rayle and the Smiths, say that Vagner's administration stresses flashy, high-tech equipment at the expense of education fundamentals. It has also been often suggested that the administration should look to another area if it wants to cut the budget, namely, itself.

"The overall argument here is that you don't have to close schools to balance the budget," Lin Smith says. "Now, if you want to close schools for some philosophical reason, that's another matter."

Class Dismissed

Suggestions that some hidden agenda-a pro-technology bias, an indifference to neighborhood issues, a resistance to community input-pervade the arguments of those fighting to keep schools open. Over the recent weeks of meetings, it has sometimes seemed that district administrators and a majority of board members speak a different language than many of the citizens who've taken an interest in school affairs.

"There is a real disconnect," Scott acknowledges.

Vagner and Kupilik, in fact, agree to certain extent. But if there is a profound difference in philosophy, they insist, it lies in their conviction that money should be invested in classroom programs rather than in keeping buildings open. They deny that anything sinister is going on behind the scenes, and say that many of the objections to school closure touch on issues that are simply out of their control.

"There is a philosophy that says, keep schools open at all costs," Kupilik acknowledges. "That no program cut is as serious as closing a school. I've read these long arguments against closing schools. It's all development, urban issues, neighborhood issues. Not teaching or education. If bricks are really that important, then it's not our problem alone. I wasn't elected to help maintain the city's urban development plans."

If Kupilik is right and a majority of trustees are ready to vote for school closure, Roosevelt, Hawthorne and Prescott will join a roster of shuttered schools, all of them to be found in older neighborhoods. There's Willard, so close to both Roosevelt and Paxson; Lincoln, a tiny, ancient place in the lower Rattlesnake; Whittier on the Northside; Central, just across the tracks downtown. While the city-center locations of these former schools help stir opposition to closing any more down, Vagner says their tight formation points to one of the basic societal changes the district must deal with.

"Those schools were built in an area when every house on the block had a mom, a dad and several kids, not just one or two," she says. "We live in a changing country. You now need a lot more houses to support a school than you used to."

She adds that there are no present plans to build new schools, nor to close any more elementary schools. "Nobody is saying things won't be different," she says. "They will be, especially at first. We're used to having a lot of room in our schools, a lot of space. Now, the classrooms will all be utilized, but we'll be ready to absorb continuing declines over the next decade. We can do this and get beyond this whole issue of school closure."

Meanwhile, while Vagner and Kupilik say they're focused on the future, a faction of the public, along with elected allies like Commissioner Kennedy, continues to demand a different approach to the present. Faced with the same problem, driven by the same concern for kids, those who run Missoula County Public Schools and many of those who trust the district with their children's education have reached very different conclusions about what's right and what's wrong for the city's youth-and the city itself.

"If we close a bunch of schools and trash the city," says parent Craig Rayle, "we'll have done a lot of damage for a short-term solution."

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