By Ross Markman
Kathie Newell breathed a sigh of relief as the crowd of more than 100 responded just as she had hoped.
A Havre school board member, she told the audience to pretend they were dead and could invite three nonfamily members to a heavenly party.
"How many of you would invite a dentist?" Newell asked.
No one raised their hand.
"A software engineer?" she asked.
Again, no one.
"How about a teacher?" Newell said with a smile.
More than half the hands shot up.
Newell was one of five panelists to speak Thursday night at a Stand Up For Education forum at Havre Middle School to discuss solutions to funding education.
Other speakers were Havre Public Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller, Montana State University-Northern Chancellor Alex Capdeville, Havre educator Sandy Wilson, and Angela Slade, president of the Havre Parent Teacher Organization.
The forum began with a 10-minute video portraying the current conditions of Montana's public schools and colleges. The film illustrated the need for more funding and the inability of Montana schools to remain competitive with those in other states.
The video's producers interviewed Montana college students graduating with education degrees. Most said they would go elsewhere for a job.
It showed a teacher career fair where only one person stood at Montana's booth a recruiter.
"This is a very sad video," Wilson said.
What's also depressing, she added, is that teacher salaries in Montana are so low 48th in the nation that many educators work a second job to supplement their income.
"Montana isn't competing with other states," Wilson said. "Some children are slipping through the cracks. As programs are cut, they will fall further back."
In recent years, Havre Public Schools has eliminated its French program, several electives at the high school and middle school levels, and has cut about a dozen teaching positions.
"Behind every dollar that gets cut is a child," Newell said. "It's clear that Montana needs several investments in education. Resources are available if Montanans are willing to make it happen."
The key, Capdeville said, is identifying a revenue source.
"I've been a proponent of a sales tax. We need to convince the policymakers that we need to make an investment in our young people," he said.
"I think one problem we have in education is we continue to do more of the same," Capdeville added. "We have a mindset sometimes that we can't make a difference. But in reality, we can."
Despite losing 534 students since 1994, Miller said, the district is making some education enhancements this year. In April, the school board added 10 to 20 minutes a day for students at Sunnyside Intermediate School, reduced the size of third-grade classes, and eliminated the fourth-grade swimming program during the school day to allow more time for academics.
"The word challenge' continues to come to the forefront. We're working together to search for solutions," Miller said.
"I think what we're going to see from this point on is the decline of our system," he added. "Every one or two years without a quality teacher in front of our children has a significant impact. We have to start the healing process now."
According to the video, each year roughly 900 students graduate with an education degree from Montana colleges. About 70 percent go out of state to teach.
At least one audience member is in the same boat. Mary Keith, a mother of three children in Havre schools, attends Northern, majoring in special education.
"After I graduate, I'm thinking about leaving the state of Montana," she said.
Keith attended the forum with her friend and fellow Northern education major, Cheryl Stern.
"I think there are concerns," Stern said. "But I'm not sure what the solutions are."
Slade had some suggestions.
"The current student-teacher ratio is too high. Large class sizes do not allow for the individualized learning that many of our students need," she said.
"Also, the current state funding formula doesn't work. It's based on student enrollment," Slade added. "That makes no sense."
Newell proposed using three-year enrollment figures rather than annual counts to determine funding. Once the district secures the funds, the key, she said, is to stop exporting the community's most valuable resource its kids.
"You're already making a difference by being here tonight," Newell said. "The more we become aware, the more people who can march along with us."