Keeping school open forces cuts to be made elsewhere

The decision to keep Prescott School open has Missoula County Public Schools trustees and administrators scurrying to find money to accomplish the task.

A newly seated MCPS Board voted 5-2 Thursday night to reverse an earlier decision to close the lower Rattlesnake neighborhood school in June and send its fourth- and fifth-grade students to Mount Jumbo School in East Missoula, which now houses only K-3 students.

The previous board had planned the closure of Prescott for the past three years, due to declining K-5 enrollment, inadequate state funding and spiraling expenses. The majority of elementary board members on the previous board believed it was more important to consolidate resources than keep the school open.

However, when longtime incumbent trustees Mike Kupilik and Jan Guffin were defeated in school elections earlier this month by newcomers Colleen Rogers and David Merrill, the makeup and thinking of the board changed drastically.

While the new board's decision will keep Prescott open, trustees must now figure out how to come up with about $150,000 to pay for it out of the district's cash-strapped general fund budget.

District officials expect it will cost $88,900 to operate the school next year; about $66,000 to hire a full-time principal; additional money for labor costs to get the school in order for next year; and perhaps $30,000 in penalties for backing out of a contract to build modular classrooms at Mount Jumbo.

"We can always find the money by making cuts," said Rosemary Harrison, who voted to keep Prescott closed. "They are going to have to make cuts. … It will be hard. Whoever gets their position eliminated or programs cut, it will be a difficult decision."

MCPS Superintendent Mary Vagner, who supported closing Prescott, said it will be difficult to find the money in the already-tight budget.

Discretionary funds - money used for staff development, repairs, rentals, periodicals and textbooks - are possible areas to cut, Vagner said.

"We stretch this money like Saran Wrap. As tight as we can," she said.

Vagner said she will follow the board's directions.

"Our responsibility is to take the actions of the board and implement them," she said.

To do that, she hopes the board will talk about its interests at the Thursday Finance and Operations Committee meeting in order to give the administration some guidance in budgeting. Vagner said a work session will probably be scheduled to discuss budget-cutting recommendations.

"I believe we need a different process for adopting a budget," said trustee Suzette Dussault, one of the trustees who voted to keep Prescott open. "We'll go through that budget and set priorities: teachers and programs, fine arts and gifted programs. We must make sure those are funded first. Then we can look at areas that have the least impact on the kids and make sure to cut those areas so that we can afford to keep Prescott open.

"There aren't large amounts but there is money here and money there," she said of the budget.

Board member Barbara Seekins, who also supported keeping the school open, agreed.

"I think people also need to realize we don't anticipate reducing or changing our teaching staff or cutting programs to fund this," she said. "We won't have larger classes and we'll still have fine arts and everything else."

Seekins suggested looking at how the mill levy money approved in the recent school elections is allocated.

"What were the last things added back?" she asked. "We can possibly look at the last things added back as a place to take it (from). We need to look at the whole budget for sources (of funding)."

Harrison said the money from the mill levy election was used to save the district's gifted education program and rehire teachers to maintain smaller class sizes. She said she wouldn't be surprised if those areas were once again recommended for cuts by MCPS administrators.

Dussault said possible areas to look at for reductions include textbooks, outside contracts for professional services, and consolidating the district's administration buildings.

Other trustees suggested that Prescott may need just a half-time principal, perhaps saving $33,000 a year.

Administrative salaries also may be reconsidered, even though Vagner said they've already been contracted for next year.

In the past, Dussault said, administrators have received larger raises than teachers and classified support personnel. In September, board members approved a 9.2 percent raise for Vagner - who voluntarily froze her salary the previous year - and an average of 4.9 percent raises for other administrators. With base-pay raises and other increases figured together, teachers also received an average 4.9 percent pay raise.

"When times are tough, we need to make sure we treat all employees fairly," Dussault said. "I think it's an equity issue."

"My point is that I am committed to neighborhood schools," she said. "We need to look at the long-range needs of the district and start to formulate some long-range funding plans."

If you're interested

The Missoula County Public Schools Finance and Operations Committee will meet Thursday at 4:30 p.m. at the MCPS Administration Building, 215 S. Sixth St. W., to discuss funding options.

The MCPS Personnel, Negotiations and Policy committee will meet Friday at 1 p.m. at the MCPS Administration Building to discuss the principal's position at Prescott School.

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