Reject the raise – that was the word Tuesday to Alex Apostle, superintendent of Missoula County Public Schools.
Oust the board members who voted for it – that was the cry to voters in Missoula from students, teachers, parents and other educators who gave public comment to the MCPS Board of Trustees in a packed Sentinel High School gymnasium.
“If you reject the raise, it will show our community that you aren’t just here for the money,” said Danielle Gornick, a high school student. “You’re here because you care about the education and our beautiful town of Missoula.“
Last month, a divided board approved a 13 percent raise for Apostle, a boost that pushes his salary to $175,000 this year and to $200,000 by 2014 and 2015. On Tuesday, an estimated 500 community members turned out to the regular board meeting, many to denounce the raise at a time teachers have to ration paper towels and students can no longer take some foreign language classes.
After roughly three hours of public comment, though, board members again touted the extraordinary leadership of Apostle not only in the district but in the Missoula community. Trustee Joe Toth, who opposed the raise, said success in education doesn’t happen by itself, and Apostle is in the driver’s seat.
“That coordination takes leadership, and I had my reasons for not supporting the raise. I still would like to say a lot of the leadership shown in this district has come from Dr. Apostle,” Toth said.
But plenty more money is now going to him, too, and Gornick, among the first group of students who spoke, shared a list of items the $20,000 salary increase could supply for the district: 57 brand-new computers, 250 new textbooks, 335 graphing calculators, 25,000 dry erase markers and 480,000 crayons.
Or, she said, “one Dr. Apostle,” or one “superstar.“
Community members who support the raise have repeatedly referred to Apostle as a “superstar” for pulling the community together to boost graduation rates and cut the number of dropouts. Since the pay hike, however, educators have upended the “superstar” moniker to highlight district employees in the trenches.
In a picket before the meeting, protesters lined South Avenue with signs saying, “My Superstar is a …” and they filled in the blanks with “Custodian,” “Lunch Ladies,” “Secretary.” Another sign said simply, “Students First,” and others called for the resignation of board president Toni Rehbein.
In public comment, Melanie Charlson announced members of the Missoula Education Association had voted in a landslide they had “no confidence” in Rehbein, elementary trustees Michael Smith and Shelly Wills, and high school trustees Drake Lemm, Jim Sadler and Debbie Dupree, who all supported the raise. Charlson, association president, said 96 percent of the 950 union employees who cast secret ballots voted “no confidence.”
Harsh words came up repeatedly from members of the public to describe the board’s decision to grant Apostle a raise after stressing the district budget needed cutting. Shameful. A betrayal. Deceitful. A disrespect. Disingenuous.
In response to the raise, teachers the past few weeks have named the long list of supplies running short in their classrooms. District leaders, in turn, have questioned why educators wouldn’t let their needs be known earlier.
On Tuesday, several district employees said they have approached the board and superintendent about the dire needs in schools on multiple occasions. And another employee said the door was never open for funding requests.
Christy Meurer, a teacher at Lewis and Clark Elementary, said over the past few years, teachers have been told again and again the economy is in bad shape, and the district budget is tight. Apostle himself painted a grim picture of the district’s financial situation with presentations about shortfalls, she said.
“That’s why you haven’t heard our list (of classroom needs) before. We had no reason to believe that anything could ever be done about it,” Meurer said. “Or maybe we did ask but nothing happened.”
The audience often applauded speakers and even gave several standing ovations. After the sometimes fiery and emotional testimony from the public, trustees shared their views, and a couple even said they wished attendance at other meetings was so high.
In her comments, board president Rehbein praised the students for their eloquence and passion, and she said she heard the message from teachers. She also said she wanted to apologize for her earlier comments “that have appeared to be insensitive to our teachers.”
“When I referred to Dr. Apostle as a superstar, that doesn’t mean I don’t think our teachers are superstars as well, because I do,” said Rehbein, who taught side by side with them and said she reveres their work.
Trustee Lemm reminded people the Montana Legislature is responsible for funding education as well, and legislators are working on bills. He said regardless of what happens with Apostle’s raise, the district has seen much success in increasing its academic rigor.
“Let’s not burn down the house because we don’t like the decorations inside,” Lemm said.
He offered the highest praise to Rehbein for her volunteer hours – all on behalf of students, he said – and to Apostle for his leadership. Lemm said it was discouraging to see such a talented superintendent criticized, and he has no greater respect for anyone.
“He (Apostle) humbles me with his character, and he humbles me with his work ethic,” Lemm said. “He humbles me with his humility.”
At press time, the board had not taken up placing technology levy increases on the May school election ballot.