Standing up for teachers

With 20 elementary teaching positions on the chopping block, parents and teachers pleaded Tuesday night with trustees from Missoula County's largest school district to swing the ax elsewhere when it comes time to balance the budget for the 2000-2001 school year.

One by one they filed to a microphone in the Sentinel High School cafeteria to implore the Missoula County Public Schools Board not to follow through on administrative recommendations that would reduce the elementary budget by up to $950,000, primarily by eliminating K-8 teaching positions and increasing class sizes.

"Middle school is often the three hardest years of schooling for children," said Carol Marino, a Washington Middle School counselor. "As a counselor … I can't speak highly enough of the benefits of working with small teams of teachers."

Michelle Hutchins, a Mount Jumbo School parent, said she was having a tough time explaining to her first-grader that the teacher he was scheduled to have in a two-year multi-age class may not be back next year.

"I can't express to you how difficult it is to explain that to a first-grader," Hutchins said. "My son is so upset he can't get to sleep at night."

More than 100 people turned out for Tuesday night's public hearing, which was held so the 11 MCPS trustees can listen to public sentiment before making budget decisions during the coming months. Faced with enrollment declines and decreases in funding, trustees repeatedly have had to pare the district's elementary budget during the past 10 years.

Last year, MCPS trustees made the difficult decision to close two schools - Roosevelt and Emma Dickinson - to balance the budget. This time, administrators have said the only place left to cut is teaching positions. Although they estimate that the reduction in the elementary budget will be about $950,000, they won't know for sure until contract agreements are reached with the district's teachers and classified personnel.

"All of us here are involved in an extremely difficult process," said Greg Tollefson, the MCPS Board vice chairman. "No one enjoys what we have to do at this time."

Much of the concern Tuesday came from parents and teachers from Washington, Paxson and Mount Jumbo schools, where some of the teaching positions will be eliminated if the board follows through on the recommendations.

Washington School supporters raised concerns over what the reduction in teaching staff would do to the team-teaching approach that is used at the middle school. Mount Jumbo supporters were worried about the loss of a teacher who handles a combined first- and second-grade class. And the Paxson followers were upset that their school, which took in the displaced Roosevelt pupils this year, is targeted again for budget disruptions.

"Approximately half of the Paxson neighborhood has already sacrificed tremendously," said Bobbi Bevington, a Paxson School teacher. "I strongly hope you consider how much sacrifice is enough. Make sure the burden is shared equally."

Other schools facing reductions under the proposal, which would cut 10 teachers each from grade schools and middle schools, include Chief Charlo, Cold Springs, Russell, Hawthorne, Lewis and Clark, Prescott, Meadow Hill, C.S. Porter and Rattlesnake.

Some speakers at the hearing wondered out loud why no administrative positions were included in the proposed cuts. Others reminded trustees that last year, when they chose to close schools, they did so with the intention of reducing class sizes across the district.

"One more time you are looking at very limited scenarios. I just don't understand that," said Judy Smith, a Missoula resident who opposed school closure last year. "You've created fewer schools with a lot more kids in them. Now you're going to cut teachers."

Several other speakers pointed out that the culprit in the school funding dilemma is the state Legislature, which repeatedly has failed to address the financial woes of Montana's public schools.

"Tonight I see no state lawmakers … in attendance," said James Carkulis, a Paxson School parent. "Why do we not have adequate funding? Because we have a state Legislature that cannot understand" how to fix the funding system.

"Until we have legislators willing to commit to kids in this state, we aren't going to get very far."

MCPS trustees will discuss the budget again at their May 9 board meeting. Final budgets are not approved until mid-August, but preliminary spending plans must be in place before the end of the school year in order to begin preparations for the fall school openings.

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