FLORENCE - The Florence-Carlton School Board of Trustees voted last week to put a $150,000 mill levy before voters on May 3. However, faced with an estimated $293,000 deficit in the general fund for next year, the school district would still have to find a way to cut $143,000 from the budget - even if the mill levy passes.
And that has many Florence teachers concerned about not only their jobs, but the loss of certain elective programs - and, as a result, the loss of students to larger school districts.
Leanne Deschamps, a Florence Middle School teacher, said the vast majority of her fellow educators hope the mill levy passes.
"Because we are not able to keep up with inflation, we are actually, as a school, spending less per student than we were 20 years ago," she said. "As a community we have to decide: Do we want our school and our students to accept that loss, or will we be able to support education at a level that allows students to have the programs that they need for graduation? Will we give them what they need for their future education, and what we teachers need to meet the demands of testing?"
The Montana Legislature won't submit a budget until April 20 at the earliest, so until then, many teachers are left to wonder what might be cut.
Superintendent John McGee said the Florence school district is at a crossroads, and he feels that asking the community for support was a last resort.
"In Florence, we traditionally have a reputation for not asking for a levy if it's not absolutely necessary," he said. "We are faced with not only declining enrollment, but also a state Legislature that has not taken any action to fund schools. We are not anticipating any additional funding from the state. We want to explain to people what we are faced with. The reality is the Legislature hasn't stepped up to the table, and they have pushed the tax issue back to local taxpayers. If they would take care of K-12 education, local school boards wouldn't be faced with the issue of asking taxpayers for support."
The Florence-Carlton School budget committee has a list of about 90 items under consideration as potential cuts, and McGee said staffing cuts and the elimination of certain elective programs are possible.
"We are concerned about what the loss of elective classes would mean to the students," Deschamps explained. "A lot of schools are suffering, but we fear that many students would decide to go to Stevi or Missoula if certain elective classes are not available here. We need to stay competitive to keep our students. What we can offer and what we choose to cut greatly impacts kids' decision to stay here or go to another school within a 20-mile radius. And when we lose those students at our school, we also lose the state funding that would be with those students coming to this school."
Physical education teacher Ed Combo said that in all his years of teaching, he has learned that elective classes are critical to the happiness of students.
"Kids want the whole experience," he said. "It's not just about the basic math and English classes. Kids want those choir classes, those welding classes, those extra classes. They want to go on those choir trips to connect and meet other people. They want a creative outlet, a chance to perform. And those are the programs that seem to get hit first, the elective programs. And those are what keep a lot of kids here."
Deschamps said teachers can empathize with people who are feeling stretched too thin financially, but she hopes they understand the importance of the school.
"I can appreciate when people feel like they don't have anything extra to give," she said. "But we, as a community, need to ask ourselves if we can support education. Especially in a rural community, the school is the heartbeat of the community."
Combo said that if the school suffers, the entire community will feel the loss.
"The school is our community identity," he said. "We don't have a lot of businesses here. The school hosts everything from Boy Scout events to water board meetings to athletic events to fundraisers to adult education. It means everything to this town."
Florence school librarian Scott Berryman said that many teachers are also parents, so they have a unique perspective.
"We have a close-knit teaching staff and a close-knit community," he said. "And we are proud of the students that Florence has produced. Our students go on to excellent colleges and do excellent work. We want to continue that."
Florence School District is dealing with the lowest enrollment it has seen in many years, at 837. That's 52 fewer students than in the fall of 2009. Deschamps said those losses still don't necessarily mean classes can be cut without consequences.
"I think it's important for people to remember that those numbers are absorbed across all 12 grade levels," she explained. "So even if you lose three or four students in a grade level, some teachers might only see one or two students leave a class. So you can't just get rid of a class because one or two students leave."
Deschamps, Combo and Berryman all agreed that $150,000 is a reasonable amount for the mill levy. They fear what might happen if the mill levy fails.
"I know our superintendent is trying to limit the impact on students," Deschamps said. "But in sitting in on those budget meetings, I truly believe our school is run with a very tight budget. There just doesn't seem to be anything extra. And to try to cut nearly $300,000, I question whether we can do that without impacting students in some way. I don't think people in the community always understand, like teachers understand, what is important to the students on a day-to-day basis. And I invite anyone to come to our school and see what is happening."
Not everyone in the Florence community is happy with the school board's plan to run a mill levy. Julie Harris, a lifelong Florence resident, Florence School alum and a parent with four kids in the district, said she would prefer a long-term solution.
"I'm not a temporary fix type of person," she said. "We have a permanent problem. Right now as a whole, our district needs to take a look at their financial status and cut within their administration. We have a lot of luxuries that we should look at before we cut kids' programs. We're not a poor district, and we should look at those cuts before we should look at cutting things that affect kids. We have to cut out the fat."
McGee said the budget committee decided that cuts to administration were not in the best interest of the school.
"The board could have considered the elimination of basically a half of a full-time equivalent administrative position," he explained. "But it's not as black and white as some people might think. There are a lot of things that go into these decisions. We have to look at the ramifications of discipline, and instructional supervision. We have some young teachers in this district, and having the skill and institutional knowledge of administrators is very valuable to them. Spreading a lot of those responsibilities didn't seem like the right thing to do, and the board has been elected by the public to make these decisions and they decided that it would be shortsighted to get rid of administrators when we need them the most."
Deschamps said that the mill levy, which increases property taxes proportional to the property value, might not cost people as much as they think.
"We have had a building levy which expires June 30 of this year," she said. "And to my knowledge, (Florence property owners) could essentially look at what they have been paying and transfer that to a mill levy for the school. They should look at the figures because it's important to know what you can afford. We're not asking anybody to go beyond what they are able to do for their general health and lifestyle. Hopefully it won't put an undue burden on anyone."
In the end, Deschamps and her fellow teachers said they are worried about the long-term consequences for the community if budget woes continue to have an effect on the education of young people.
"Teachers are doing a remarkable job with what we have been given for a budget in the past," she said. "But we still don't have what we need to give the kids the best possible education. Are we going to support education in this community? Ultimately, they need to decide for themselves, can they support education, or will we need to, down the line, pay for the result of students not receiving a good education, which oftentimes means putting money into crime prevention programs?"
McGee said it was a long, difficult process to come to the decision to ask for a mill levy.
"We want to give the public some say over their educational system," he said. "It would be healthier for state funding to go to K-12 education. But we don't know what's going to happen, so we have to face the possibility of cutting things. It's extremely difficult to know you are affecting the livelihood of people in this community. But we are trying to be fiscally responsible, tighten our belts, and offer the public the option of helping us out a little."