Thursday, April 27, 2000 Missoulian Editorial It is time for spring school elections and budgets, and once again Missoula County residents are mad at their school trustees and suspicious about school administrators.

Two years ago, talk about school closures brought tempers to a boil. The schools were closed. Kids got on with life, but adult resentment simmers.

Now, less than a week before a school election, some people believe school administrators and trustees haven't considered all their options, haven't looked over budgets closely enough to avoid cutting 20 teaching positions next year. A public hearing Tuesday night produced undeserved personal attacks alongside genuine concern and constructive criticism.

Ever since the elementary and high school districts consolidated six years ago, Missoula has been a town with a stressful and stressed educational climate. Dedicated board members are burned out and worn out; dedicated school administrators feel second-guessed and attacked.

Maybe there's a better way to do public education in this town.

Here's an idea to consider:

Montanans seem to like the idea of smaller, more intimate schools, with more control and responsibility focused at a "local" level. So let's break apart Missoula's bigger district into three autonomous neighborhood districts where programs and budgets can be hashed out closer to the ground.

Missoula already has 16 neighborhood councils in place; they could be anchors or advisers to the neighborhood school districts.

Breaking apart large districts is not an original idea. Los Angeles, the nation's largest school district, is already making the move. In mid-March, its board recommended a total overhaul, breaking L.A. into 11 different school districts. The plan was approved just two weeks ago. It is a grand experiment in a district that has grown too big to respond to students, teachers and parents.

Maybe Missoula has too.

Three elementary districts, roughly corresponding to the districts near the three urban high schools, would move budget, staffing, administrative costs, extracurricular activities, course content, textbook selection, testing, building maintenance and busing decisions closer to the families who drive by the schools every day and whose children who use the programs. If one mini-district likes multi-age classes, great. If another wants to eliminate middle-school basketball, go for it.

Many details need to be worked out, of course - how to handle non-MCPS schools that feed into Hellgate, Sentinel and Big Sky high schools, for instance. But Missoula has many, many smart people who have a true love of education. Bring creative, progressive people together to design a new, almost-from-scratch kind of district.

Just an idea.

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