MCPS administrators will cut jobs, hours

Slashing jobs and cutting hours is an annual rite Missoula County Public Schools administrators have practiced for the past six years.

They are preparing to do it again this year.

When school administrators and MCPS trustees gather on Wednesday for a work session to discuss the 2000-01 budget, on the docket will be 20 full-time elementary school positions slated for the chopping block, said Mary Vagner, MCPS superintendent.

She would not, however, comment about what positions are at risk.

"We are recommending staff reductions," Vagner said. "We've looked at the periphery before, now we're looking at the core."

According to Vagner, administrators and trustees must find a way to cut $949,120 from the elementary schools to balance the budget.

That's the number her staff has arrived at after juggling essential expenditures, like costs of lighting and heating. It also includes $41,903 in estimated revenue decrease due to declining enrollment.

Also folded into the budget is a 3-percent wage increase for all employee groups in salaries and benefits. But wage increases for teachers and nonclassified staff have yet to be settled in on-going negotiations. The district's projected 3 percent increase is subject to change.

The burden has been lifted somewhat, Vagner said, because at least nine teachers have come forward with their retirement plans, and that translates into about $300,000 in budget savings. Those positions will not be recommended for replacement, she said.

But finding the remaining $649,120 to chop from the budget will not be an easy task, Vagner said, especially when it means teacher positions are at risk.

"This is very difficult," she said. "Anytime you have to recommend a decrease in staffing you are decreasing services and you are impacting other staff … I do believe we are at our threshold. I don't see any other options."

Trustee Suzette Dussault, however, feels that other methods could be uncovered to balance the budget if board members were given more detailed information before Wednesday's meeting.

"The work session to public hearing is not enough time for us to come fully prepared to have a full discussion of the budget," Dussault said. "We do not get a detailed report - not only do we not get the past three years' expenditures, but we don't get next year's proposed budget before the work session."

Dussault does not find company with Mike Kupilik, MCPS board chairman, who feels budget items are very accessible.

"Every piece of information we need is provided - and then some," Kupilik said. "There is no piece of information that isn't available if we wish it."

But like Dussault, Kupilik said he too is frustrated by the yearly ritual of having to cut the budget.

"We've been doing this for six years now and we're running out of places to cut," he said. "Pretty soon we will really be affecting the core of producing education. We cannot sustain these kinds of cuts forever. At some point the budget will have to stabilize - either legislators will have to step in or the rate in which we lose kids has to taper off."

Kupilik said he agrees with Vagner that the only option to balance the budget for next year is to cut positions.

"Ninety-one percent of our budget is wages and salaries," he said. "When you are cutting money you have limited choices."

Balancing the district's high school budgets, however, appears to be easier thanks to increasing numbers of high school students.

Although administrators estimate they need to hunt up an extra $740,164, the high schools' budget will receive an increase of about $375,164. The funds take into account the money the state pays for each student - about $4,600 - and about $62,019 if voters approve a mill levy in May, Vagner said.

Administrators expect another $240,000 will come from the savings of salaries of at least 16 high school teachers who have stepped forward with their retirement plans. The remaining $125,000 will come from the general fund reserve, Vagner said.

If you're interested

Missoula County Public Schools will hold a work session to balance next year's K-12 school budget at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 19, at the district's business building on South Avenue next to Sentinel High School.

A public hearing for the budget recommendations will be 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 25. Trustees will take action on the budget at their regular meeting Tuesday, May 9.

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