By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
By a narrow vote, the Havre school board decided once again Tuesday not to pursue releasing the East End Colony from Havre Public Schools.
The North Harlem school district had asked for the release so it could open a publicly funded attendance center at the East End Colony.
The board's vote was 4-3. School board members Teresa Miller, Todd Hanson and Joe Marino voted to pursue an agreement that would have released East End from Havre Public Schools. Judy Bricker, Kathie Newell, Jim Heberly and board chair Denise Thompson voted against the motion.
"I'm confident that given the current state of relations between Havre Public Schools and representatives for both the North Harlem school districts and East End Colony that the 25-year history of requests and denial can be resolved, and it's time to give innovation within the district ... a chance," Hanson said before the vote.
Since 1978, the issue of East End having a public school or attendance center has come before the Havre school board more than 25 times and each time it's been rejected, Superintendent Kirk Miller said. The colony, one of the largest property taxpayers in Hill County, has a private school and wants a publicly funded school instead. The colony has declined to have its children bused to Havre schools.
An attendance center is similar to a school but receives less public funding.
The most recent request was in March. At that time the board voted 5-0 against a new attendance center, citing the cost to the district and concerns that the colony would not be willing to meet state accreditation standards.
In September, Eli Hofer, administrator of North Harlem School, sent Miller a copy of a proposed agreement that would put the East End Colony under the jurisdiction of the North Harlem district. Right now, the only school in that district is the North Harlem School.
Miller referred the letter to Hill County Attorney Cyndee Peterson. She concluded that Hill County and Havre Public Schools would continue to collect property taxes from the colony even if East End was released from HPS.
Miller presented some pros and cons to the board before the vote. He did not make a specific recommendation.
The benefits would include the fact that the burden of paying for the attendance center would not fall on taxpayers of Hill County, he said.
Under drawbacks, he said Hilldale Colony would probably follow the request with one of its own. He also said smaller, outlying schools are inefficient and expensive for the state.
"We would be a shining example of how Montana law allows inefficiencies within our system," he said.
Hofer told the board that the issue has been brought up so often, his district feels it is worth a try.
"More public involvement in those schools would benefit the students," he said, adding that the agreement could be dropped in a year if it wasn't working out.
East End Colony School administrator Joe Waldner declined to make a presentation in front of the board.
Newell told the board she would not support moving forward with the agreement.
In her 12 years on the board, she said, she has voted against similar requests because of the realities of education in Montana.
She said Montana schools are struggling and understaffed, and that opening an attendance center at East End would further burden the state's taxpayers.
"How can we possibly in good conscience even consider playing a part in opening another school, and a small rural one at that?" Newell said, adding that in the last few years HPS has had to close a school in Havre, and is faced with cutting programs and trimming staff because of funding shortages.
"I remain adamantly opposed to using public money to fund private schools," she said.
Bricker also voted against pursing the agreement.
"I have no problem whatsoever with people who don't want to send their children to our school - that's their right," Bricker said. "I do have a problem with them asking the rest of us to pay for it, and that's what vouchers and attendance centers and all the rest of them do."
Waldner said today he thinks focusing on the funding issue isn't right.
"I just saw that we have three board members that care for education ... and then we have four members that are basically looking at it as a funding issue," he said.
"It's ridiculous taking this point of view to deny services to the students," he said.
Waldner said he would "absolutely" bring the matter to the board in the future.
Teresa Miller said after the meeting that she respects the financial concerns of Bricker and Newell.
"I don't think we do (the Hutterites) a service by denying them this request," Miller added.
Miller said she thinks that both sides would benefit if Hutterite children came to school in Havre.
"However, they are not going to come to the school district. They never will. I saw this as an opportunity to put this to rest," she said.
Marino, who also voted to pursue the agreement, said after the meeting that he thought the vote could have brought closure to an issue that has come up again and again.
He said that larger school districts are more efficient because they take advantage of economies of scale, but that for him that concern is overridden by the fact that the school district has been unable to solve the situation for so many years.
He said signing an agreement would not be a detriment to Havre, and would benefit the colony.
School board chair Denise Thompson said that even if Havre taxpayers don't bear most of the cost, she would oppose the move on principal.
"From a philosophical standpoint I don't feel it's the right thing to do with taxpayer dollars, and I don't care whether they're my taxpayer dollars," Thompson said. "We have too many little schools in the state of Montana and we don't have enough money to pay for it."
Hofer said he was surprised by the board's decision.
"I just assumed that the board by now had done more research. I felt they were rehashing old rhetoric that had no merit," he said today.
He said the North Harlem School is not a private school, as Newell suggested. The North Harlem district receives oversight from the state Office of Public Instruction like any other public school district, he said.
Hofer also was critical of the board.
"They don't see East End and Hilldale as part of the greater community," he said.
Hofer said the board's efforts to defend Montana taxpayers were misguided.
"The colonies are some of the largest taxpayers in the county, but according to Newell and Bricker they have no right to it unless it's doled out by (HPS)," he said.
He added that it would probably cost the school district more money to bus students to Havre than to set up an attendance center at East End.