Decision to close elementary school back on the agenda Thursday

No one knows for sure what will happen at Thursday's special board meeting of Missoula school trustees, but board members said they can bank on a big public turnout.

In fact, they're planning on it.

The meeting, which has been changed to the Sentinel High School gymnasium, will consider three distinct issues: rescind board action to close Prescott School, rescind board action on awarding a $298,240 construction bid to Garden City Builders to build modular classrooms at Mount Jumbo School, and rescind board action to construct modulars at Mount Jumbo.

"I assume there will be a vote on all three agenda items," said Jenda Cummings, chairwoman of MCPS board of trustees.

Decisions about Prescott and the modulars are open for re-examination after newly elected Trustee David Merrill last week asked the board to schedule a special board meeting.

For people interested in attending Thursday's event, Cummings said, it will begin with a short statement of purpose, followed by a public comment period, and then MCPS administrators will present background information about the board's previous action on the agenda items.

Trustees will then discuss each of three items separately and take whatever action they deem appropriate.

"I don't know what to expect," Cummings said. "But I hope there is a lot of public comment. It is especially important to hear from teachers. I hope teachers from Prescott and Mount Jumbo will feel comfortable enough to share their ideas - we'd like to know how they feel."

On Tuesday, Cummings said she still supports the school board's original decision to close Prescott.

"I think it was well researched and well thought out," she said. "We still have a decline in enrollment and we are still looking for places to cut the budget - the same reasons still exist as they did two years ago when the decision was made."

Collen Rogers, a newly elected school trustee, said Thursday's meeting will go a long way toward settling the matter once and for all.

"The complaint I have been hearing is that there's been a lack of discussion by the board on these issues," Rogers said. "And there's been no conversation or discussion going on about Prescott - like how much are we willing to spend to close Prescott and save $88,000 to the general fund, with the cost of the modulars coming in around $300,000?"

Rogers said she wants to hear from the community before she throws in her opinion about the issues.

"I'm truly undecided at this point," she said. "I need to hear everything. I'm looking forward to getting all kind of information and feedback Thursday, and then I'm going to ask some really pointed questions."

Mary Vagner, MCPS superintendent, said Prescott School had 178 students a year ago, compared to its current enrollment of 158 students. Mount Jumbo School had 279 students last year, compared to its current enrollment of 249 students.

In the past year, the entire school district has dropped by 75 kids in Missoula's K-5 schools and by 55 kids in the middle schools. High schools, on the other hand, have increased by 123 students; but those schools cover a larger geographic area, Vagner said.

"We do expect the (elementary and middle school) numbers to continue to decline, but the rate of the decline is not as rapid as it was about five years ago," she said.

If trustees decide Thursday to reopen Prescott, administrators will have to hustle to find the $88,900 needed to keep the building open and functioning, plus the cost of a full-time school principal, Vagner said.

The entire sum needed to keep Prescott going, she said, would be about $150,000 that would have to be found in the district's already tight budget.

Both Prescott and Mount Jumbo have for the past two years operated with a principal who has worked half time at each school. This past year, Gail Becker has been the principal of the schools.

The situation, Becker said, is less than desirable.

"It affects all of the functions of the schools, and not in the best way," she said. "It's doable, but it puts things at a disadvantage, like relationships with teachers and students - and there's a high burnout factor."

Aside from the budget issues, there's the emotional toll of Prescott students, parents and teachers who have spent the last year preparing and organizing for their school's closure. The same could be said of the Mount Jumbo students, parents and teachers who have prepared for the merger, Vagner said.

In the past year, the schools' libraries have been recoded, new bus schedules and routes have been reconfigured, instructional materials have been reassigned, teachers have been shuffled to new positions and farewell parties have been thrown. Now, all that needs to be done is the physical move of students and desks, she said.

"The amount of time and resources required to shift schools at this time is a concern for me, and the emotional impact on the students, the teachers and parents who are at this point moving forward with the consolidation," Becker said. "If Prescott were to stay open the necessity to close the school would emerge again, and we would have to go through this whole process again."

If you're interested

Missoula County Public Schools Board of Trustees will hold a special meeting 6:30 p.m. Thursday. The meeting has been moved to the Sentinel High School gymnasium.

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