By Ross Markman
A downward trend in state funding for public schools, the growing teacher shortage and the mountain of debt accrued each year by Montana college students are just a few of the issues that will be tackled Thursday night in Havre.
Slated for 7 p.m. at the Havre Middle School assembly room, the Stand Up For Education community forum will explore the problems of and hopefully solutions to education funding.
Stand Up for Education is a new statewide coalition that includes groups like the Montana Parent-Teacher Association, the Montana School Boards Association and the Montana State University Alumni Association.
"The idea came from the frustration of people who are education supporters who feel like the word is not getting out at how desperate the need is for additional funding for both K-12 schools and the university system," said Terry Minow, Stand Up for Education's political director.
The one-hour meeting will feature a 10-minute video depicting the current condition of Montana's public schools and colleges. A panel discussion and question and answer session will follow.
The panelists are Havre Public Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller, Montana State University-Northern Chancellor Alex Capdeville, Havre educator Sandy Wilson, Havre school board member Kathie Newell, and Angela Slade, president of the Havre Parent Teacher Organization.
"I'm confident that a forum like this will help to spread the word," Miller said.
During the panel discussion, Miller said, he will address how the lack of funding has adversely affected Havre Public Schools, forcing the district to restructure and to close the Devlin School last year.
Capdeville will use the meeting as a vehicle to discuss rising college tuitions in Montana and the problem the state has drawing teachers, he said.
"We have a difficulty recruiting teachers to Northern because of low salaries," he said. "You're competing against states that offer bonuses and housing. There's some incentives I think we need to provide we're not providing."
For students, Capdeville said, Montana college nonresident tuition is one of the highest in the nation. The rising cost of college leads to increased debt, which in Montana averages more than $17,000 per student.
"We need to encourage people to stay in education and try to make their higher education as affordable as possible so they will go back into their rural communities to teach," Capdeville said.
Minow agreed that high tuition rates are having a negative impact on Montana education. With the teaching salary in Montana ranked 48th in the nation, she said, many cannot afford to teach in the state following graduation.
"One of the major points of the video is the connection between the shortage of funding in K-12 and higher education. The way it's demonstrated in Montana is through the teacher shortage," Minow said.
Roughly 900 students graduate with an education degree each year in Montana, Minow added. About 70 percent go out of state to teach.
The Havre forum, which is free to attend, is one of 10 in the state, Minow said. Other meeting sites are in Billings, Glendive, Bozeman, Butte, Helena, Kalispell, Great Falls, Hamilton and Missoula.
"They've been hugely successful so far. We've actually doubled what our attendance goals have been," Minow said.
The Butte discussion attracted more than 200 parents and educators, and several of the meetings have had legislative candidates in attendance, she added.
Following the meeting, audience members will receive a list of 10 things they can do to stand up for education like keeping quality teachers in Montana and holding legislative candidates accountable for what they promise while campaigning.
Most candidates, Minow said, support an increase in funding for education. But few, she said, follow through when elected.
"Every two years we go to Legislature, and at the end of the session, things are no better than when we started," Minow said.
Capdeville agreed that state funding is a necessity, but said it's the responsibility of educators to propose ideas.
One possible revenue source Capdeville suggested is a state sales tax.
"We in education have been asking for money higher ed and K-12. But if we're going to ask for more, we need to come up with a solution," he said. "We just can't keep asking for more if we can't come up with the revenue."