Supterintendent Alex Apostle told Missoula County Public Schools trustees and union representatives Wednesday that he will finish out his professional career as the district’s superintendent.
Although he interviewed for similar jobs in other states last year, Apostle said he has made a commitment to Missoula and the district, and will fulfill his new contract as superintendent through June 30, 2015.
“There are opportunities,” Apostle said at the MCPS personnel, negotiations & policy committee. “But I’m here. I’m committed to Missoula County Public Schools.”
Apostle said there still is work to be done in the district.
Added to that to-do list on Wednesday is creating an effective communication system whereby teachers and staff aren’t afraid of reprisal if they have complaints or criticisms that need to be aired to district administrators.
In the weeks since MCPS trustees approved a 13 percent pay raise for Apostle, teachers have been so disheartened and frustrated by the board’s decision they contacted union representatives. But they also fear retribution if they go public with those complaints, said Melanie Charlson, president of the Missoula teachers union.
In all her years in the district, Charlson said she’s never seen teachers express such outrage over a board decision as she has experienced in the past 16 days since trustees agreed to raise Apostle’s salary to $175,000 this year and $200,000 by 2014-15.
Chief among teachers’ complaints: As trustees give Apostle a significant raise and make him the highest paid superintendent in the state, teachers aren’t being heard, explained Charlson, who brought to the meeting five letters to read to Apostle and the trustees.
Written by teachers, those letters said Missoula schools are having to share textbooks and do without basic supplies, are crunched for classroom space, struggle with the problems of aging buildings, are not adequately staffed with counselors and paraeducators, and teachers work extra-long days without additional pay because of personnel and department cuts.
“To me, one of the most frustrating aspects of the entire budget process is that we seem to jump at every educational initiative that comes our way without doing any meaningful assessment of existing programs that work,” Brett Taylor, a chemistry teacher at Sentinel High School, said in one of the letters read at the meeting.
Taylor explained another way in which district budget issues directly impact his classroom.
“I began teaching at MCPS in 1991. My classroom budget was $1,000. Twenty-two years later, my classroom budget is a little over $800. I teach chemistry, an equipment- and supply-intensive subject. The $800 is supposed to cover all of my equipment needs, chemicals, glassware and classroom supplies such as paper towels, board markers, computer pater, etc., etc., etc. Needless to say $800 does not go very far. In 2011, my wife finally had to do an intervention when our personal contribution to my classroom approached $2,000.”
Trustee chairmanwoman Toni Rehbein said that in conversations with teachers last week, she was told by some that they weren’t allowed to talk to trustees or air their complaints to top administrators.
Trustee Scot Bixler clearly expressed to Charlson that he is willing and interested to hear from teachers at anytime.
“I’m elected to this board to listen,” Bixler said.
After hearing the feedback and concerns, Apostle said school administrators need to know about the problems teachers juggle in order to fix them.
Commenting that he found the long list of teacher complaints disconcerting, but was also curious because they are just now being expressed, Apostle said there is obvious work to be done to improve communications throughout the district.
“We have to be fair here,” Apostle said. “If teachers have a problem, they need to give administrators a chance to solve problems.”
Going around principals or district supervisors and taking problems straight to a trustee is not an effective system, he said.
“There has to be a system of communication and we need to respect our principals,” Apostle said. “I’m all for the board talking with individuals, but if everybody in the world goes running to the board, that’s extremely dangerous.”
“We have got to give the people in the building the chance to resolve issues,” he said. And if needs and issues aren’t being met by the chain of command, then teachers need to contact him directly.
Moving forward, Apostle said, work needs to be done in creating a clear communication system between teachers and the board of trustees, and with principals and supervisors.
Tangible issues, such as the lack of school supplies for students needs to be addressed immediately, Apostle said.
“We have the resources to provide these things, but we need to know about them,” he said. “And we have to have a system of communication, we need a system.”
Trustees Mike Smith, Drake Lemm and Rehbein all took the opportunity at the meeting to reiterate why they supported Apostle’s raise.
Given Apostle’s skills and work ethic, Lemm said, he is being paid fairly.
A strong leader is needed to guide a successful enterprise, Smith said, and Apostle is an effective, strong leader.
In other committee business, MCPS regional director Mark Thane said the district needs to rethink how to best serve club sports that rent school facilities.
The number of club sports is increasing, the demand for school gyms and fields is increasing, and so too is the wear and tear on MCPS facilities.
“Our gyms are booked and options to rent for new groups is difficult because (the gyms and fields) are used so much,” Thane said.
Another matter of concern is enforcing the requirements and criteria for students who are lettering in a sport that is outside of the district’s in-school programming.
Athletic directors at all three Missoula high schools have noted an inconsistency with students who are lettering with outside groups.
One example, Thane said, is that students who are in school sports and miss a day of school cannot participate in that day’s athletic competition. That standard, it has been determined, has not been held to students who compete in outside sports.
Also, at the March 12 board meeting, a presentation on the district’s move to launch a dual language immersion initiative starting in the fall of 2013 will be given by regional director Heather Davis Schmidt.
The item was intended to be on the consent agenda and the board asked to approve the program at that meeting. However, Wednesday’s committee decided the public would be better served by having a chance to learn more about it.