Missoula schools move forward with massive budget cuts (2024)

Facing an $8 million shortfall, the Missoula County Public Schools board voted Tuesday night to move forward with budget cuts that could impact upwards of 100 teachers, administrators and other staff.

Attendees at Tuesday night’s meeting were greeted by a tunnel of students expressing their disdain for the deep cuts recommended for the district’s arts programs. The students wielded signs and musical instruments while chanting, “this is my education, arts deserve representation,” and their concerns were matched by the outpouring of teachers, parents and other community members who also showed up. There was standing room only in the board room and overflow area for the more than five-hour meeting that nearly stretched into Wednesday.

Superintendent Micah Hill explained that the budget shortfall is largely due to declining enrollment in the elementary district and the impending sunset of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds that originated during the COVID pandemic. And despite establishing a course of action at Tuesday’s meeting, the district will reassess the situation in May pending the outcome of taxpayer votes, union negotiations and any staffing changes, such as resignations or retirements.

Hill is months into his first year with the district and said that he had been having conversations in anticipation of this budget shortfall since he started in July. He became visibly emotional and choked up while speaking about the proposed personnel reductions.

“They are friends that we love and they are people who care a lot about your students, and I don’t know how to say it better than anyone else who’s advocating for these positions, but these cuts will have a significant impact on our schools and programs,” Hill said.

“I also want to clarify that these challenges are not the result of poor planning, lack of community support or wasteful spending,” Hill continued. “The budget challenges are the result of declining enrollment, limited legislative funding, recruitment and retention efforts, unfunded mandates, changing demographics, response to marginalized demographics and achievement gaps and the inflationary costs that exceed increased funding.”

Hill also noted that Missoula is not alone in these budget struggles as every district in the nation that received federal relief funds during the pandemic is also forced with a new reality as those funds expire. In Montana alone, he said, the Billings elementary district is experiencing an $8 million deficit, Helena a $6 million shortfall and Bozeman cut $4 million from its budget last year.

“Almost all of my AA counterparts have been faced with significant budget reductions, and most of them aren’t talking about cutting just positions. They’re talking about closing schools,” Hill said. “The last time that MCPS saw these types of reductions was almost a generation ago.”

I don’t know how to say it better than anyone else who’s advocating for these positions, but these cuts will have a significant impact on our schools and programs.”

Superintendent Micah Hill

Hill thanked the community for its enthusiasm and advocacy, and said he appreciated the community’s “long history” supporting Missoula schools “both financially and otherwise.”

Board members and district administrators at the meeting maintained that its handling of the relief funds was not irresponsible and noted that the money was largely used to fill holes that existed in the district prior to the pandemic in positions like behavioral and academic interventionists. They noted that the current reductions recommended by the budget committee were made to maintain state accreditation standards.

“If we were a more political board, and a less kid-oriented board, maybe we wouldn’t have made the decisions about [the federal relief funds] that we did, but we did,” Trustee Grace Decker said. “We paid for people to be in the buildings and do the things that we value most and that includes our teachers.

“We wanted more art in the schools for kids and we got that to happen while we had the money to do it, and I don’t regret spending money on people to do great work with our kids during the most stressful time that any of us can probably remember,” she continued. “I don’t regret that, but it feels really hard to think of taking something away.”

The approved recommendation by the budget committee provides three options for how the district will approach the budget shortfall, two of which are entirely dependent on community support for operational and safety levies in the upcoming election. This spring, the district will ask voters to approve a $2.5 million safety levy and just over $500,000 in operational levies.

The committee also proposed increasing the district’s revenue by raising extracurricular participation fees, fees to rent school facilities and admission fees to attend school events. However, these increases will only produce an estimated $250,000 across both the elementary and high school districts. Pat McHugh, the district’s director of business and operations, said there aren’t many opportunities for schools to produce revenue outside of fee increases.

As a means to minimize staff reductions, the committee recommended that certain salaries for positions be moved from the general fund to other areas of the district’s budget when appropriate. One such movement, for example, would shift the salary of the district’s transportation supervisor from the general fund to the transportation fund. The addition of two local charter schools to the district will bring in some revenue and provide job opportunities to those who lose their jobs due to the proposed reductions.

Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, parents, students, community members and music education professionals submitted more than 110 written comments imploring the board to save arts educators at the elementary level as well as the district’s arts education director position currently held by Monte Grisé. Other public comments urged the board to protect library staff positions and mental health professionals in the schools.

More than 40 students, staff, parents and other community members spoke during Tuesday’s meeting, and a majority expressed their support for preserving elementary art teachers and the district’s arts education director position.

“The arts education director is unlike the other positions [at risk of being cut] because it cannot be saved by any of the levies in May,” said James Smart, director of the University of Montana’s School of Music.

Hellgate High School senior Layne Polen told the board how Grisé has impacted her and how impressive the district’s music program is as a result of his leadership when compared to the other district she previously attended before moving to Missoula three years ago.

“It’s the high schoolers, it’s the elementary kids, who are being truly affected by this and who I urge you to care about and to think about,” Polen said. “It just really hurts to see my passion of music being hurt by logistics. I really hope that you guys can see that it’s Monte Grisé and the position itself are really, really important.”

Other commenters pleaded to maintain funding for career and technical education positions, mental health specialists and academic interventionists.

“We are finding ourselves stretched thin and struggling to effectively manage the multitude of staffing shortages,” said Jordan Garland, a fifth-grade teacher at Lewis and Clark Elementary.

“From daily disruptive outbursts to instances of verbal and even physical aggression and violence, the spectrum of challenging behaviors exhibited by students demands a proactive and comprehensive approach,” she continued. “Without our behavior interventionist providing support, teachers will have no one to call when students are violent, out of control and unsafe.”

Many commenters acknowledged the difficult decisions the board has to make, but several people criticized the district administration and board for not engaging with the community earlier about the budget issue.

Trustee Arlene Walker-Andrews encouraged everyone who issued a public comment to send a copy to members of the Montana Legislature.

“Because that’s the problem,” Walker-Andrews said. “We simply do not fund education in Montana the way it should be funded.”

Missoula schools move forward with massive budget cuts (1)

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Missoula schools move forward with massive budget cuts (2024)
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