Lately, Melanie Charlson has spent her workdays fielding complaints and talking through outrage.
The tension has been rising ever since the Missoula County Public Schools Board of Trustees approved a 13 percent raise for the district’s superintendent, Alex Apostle, on Jan. 14, said Charlson, president of the Missoula Education Association, the district’s teachers union.
“There’s a lot of outcry,” Charlson said. “When we negotiated last year and when the board adopted the budget in August, we were told there was no money, and in that budget there was nothing there about Dr. Apostle’s increase.
“I’ve received hundreds of letters and phone calls, and teachers are questioning what will be cut, because something will have to give and be moved around to accommodate the superintendent’s salary increase and have the budget balance.”
That Apostle will earn a substantial increase at a time when teachers are spread thin and struggling with the repercussions of years of budget cuts is both insensitive and unfair, Charlson said.
At Lowell School, for instance, some teachers are using five-gallon paint buckets because there is no money for wastebaskets.
“I have asked teachers, ‘What are you doing without?’ and I have heard everything from the basic things, such as there’s not enough Kleenex boxes and teachers are buying their own, to being asked to ration paper towels for hand-washing only and not cleaning up in the elementary schools,” Charlson said.
At Paxson, fourth-grade teacher Gloria Howell said the school has discontinued colored ink in all the printers and there are copy limits. In math class, there aren’t enough math books and materials for each class and often two to three children must share a book.
“All of this is very disheartening,” Howell said. “The thing that really impacts students, though, is that we have many students who need intervention support, who used to have a reading or math specialist in many of the schools and we have lost that funding.
“We have been imploring the board for over a year to find money to fund intervention specialists, as this is an at-risk population that is overlooked, not receiving services and would meet our goals of Graduation Matters Missoula.”
According to the district’s budget and finance manager, Apostle’s retroactive $20,000 pay raise for 2012-13 will be funded with one-time-only money that comes from a workers compensation credit.
“Additional obligations to the budget happen during the year, and that’s not unusual,” said Pat McHugh. “In this instance, there won’t be a reduction anywhere (in the district) because we will cover it with soft money.”
“But for next year, we have to build the pay increase into the budget and make it permanent,” he said.
Even if Apostle didn’t receive a raise, the question of future budget cuts districtwide remains unanswered for several reasons, McHugh said.
For one thing, it is unclear what the Montana Legislature will do about funding public education, and enrollment numbers, particularly if they fluctuate, have a huge impact on school funding. Each student means roughly $6,000 for the school district.
This year, MCPS’ general fund budget for all elementary and middle schools was $32 million, and $27 million for high schools.
Approximately 90 percent of the general fund budget goes to paying the salaries and benefits of employees, including about 600 teachers, who get a 2 percent raise this year, after a half-percent raise in 2010 and zero percent in 2011.
The budget also provides salaries and benefits to approximately 260 full-time classified staff; 33 full-time administrators; seven full-time managers/ supervisors; 12 full-time trades and craft personnel; 14 noon duty aides; and 2.25 full-time trainers.
Toni Rehbein, the MCPS board chairwoman, defends Apostle’s pay raise for many reasons.
She called Apostle a courageous visionary who has pushed many significant districtwide initiatives forward, and said he has secured $2.2 million in private money to support MCPS teachers and programs.
“That is extraordinary,” Rehbein said. “The programs we have built all benefit our families and our students – and our teachers – and have been paid for with private dollars that Dr. Apostle has brought in and not detracted from the general fund.”
The $20,000 Apostle receives this year, and ultimately the $200,000 he will earn in 2014-15 is well deserved, particularly given the fact that Apostle continues to find more funding for the district and its emphasis on 21st century learning, Rehbein said.
“We want to keep Dr. Apostle as long as we can, to put remarkable programs in place,” she said. “And he’s done remarkable work. Eighty percent of the $1.6 million Washington Foundation grant goes to teacher development and helping teachers move up the pay scale without having to dip into their own pockets.”
Keeping a successful superintendent is always the best option for the district, Rehbein said, and when the time comes to replace Apostle, the district will be well-positioned to attract another high-caliber chief administrator.
“The salary and the remarkable growth the district has undergone, we believe, will attract another talented individual,” Rehbein said. “We are a district on the move and we would love to have someone who wants to piggyback on that.”
“And I can’t imagine what our community would do if we left the salary as is and then we kick it up in three years,” she said. “We want to do it incrementally.”
Despite the district’s touted progressive programming, increased student graduation rates and decreased dropout rates, Apostle’s salary increase rubs the wrong way, Charlson said.
“We all have been getting leaner and lighter, pinching pennies and making do, and were told there’s no more money in the budget for teacher salaries. And then we get the board’s decision on Alex,” Charlson said. “It doesn’t seem like they are playing fair.”
Charlson is also concerned about the kind of message the salary increase sends to the Legislature, which holds the fate of public education funding in its hands.
“I think in general, a lot of people think we are comparing Apostle’s raise to the lack of teacher raises,” said Jill Derryberry, a Hellgate High School teacher.
“That isn’t actually what concerns most teachers,” she said. “It’s more about the support for our students and how our students are doing in the classroom. The status of our space, of what’s been cut.
“At Hellgate, we can no longer keep our computer labs open because we lost our attendants that were monitors, and we cut a janitor position.”
Compelled to express their concerns, Derryberry and a dozen of her colleagues were moved to post a list on their classroom doors, titled “I Have a Dream.”
The “dreams” include “department budgets that don’t make us choose between tissues and books.”
“Of English sections restored.”
“Our school’s Internet connection would meet 21st century standards.”
“That all students and staff are equally supported, educationally and financially, to their best and valued potential.”
“The 8 sections we have lost in our department in the last four years.”
“To get our heater fixed.”
“My students have books I don’t have to tape together or rubber band.”
“One textbook for every student.”
Rehbein said she knows the complaints, and takes them to heart.
“I take those seriously, and I have been meeting with teachers all week,” she said. “I’m getting different kinds of messages.”
In the end, she’s learned that each school needs to improve its communication within its community, and communication needs to be improved between the schools and the board of trustees.
“I care about this laundry list of complaints and I wish we knew before about the needs,” she said. “I think it is interesting that it comes out at this time, but we are addressing them.
“I hear the hurt in our staff and I am doing everything in my power to get Senate Bill 175 passed. If that gets passed, it could mean a 4 to 5 percent pay raise for teachers.
“It would mean every teacher is not forgotten or dismissed and not a second-class citizen.”
Reach reporter Betsy Cohen at (406) 523-5253 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.