By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
With voters in the Blue Sky and Kremlin-Gildford school districts going to the polls Tuesday to decide whether the two districts should consolidate, their superintendents say they want people to know the facts.
"People can't run off of rumors," Blue Sky Superintendent Terry Grant said Thursday. "My biggest concern is that people are dealing with facts and not rumors."
KG Superintendent John Ballard said it's impossible to predict what will happen if consolidation is approved or if the districts stay as they are.
"You hear all kinds of rumors. The proof is in the pudding," Ballard said. "You wait until consolidation takes place and then you find out what you do and don't have."
Both districts are holding elections from noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday. If either districts votes down consolidation, it fails.
The Blue Sky board supports consolidation "100 percent," board chair Lyle Peterson said today.
Ballard and the KG board are not taking a position on the consolidation.
The KG school board is holding an informational meeting Monday night at 6:30 in the Gildford school cafeteria.
Grant said the Blue Sky school board considered holding another community meeting before the vote but decided that enough informational meetings and discussions had already been held.
"We feel one more meeting is pointless," Grant said.
In a Superintendent's Corner newsletter sent out to people in the Blue Sky district, Grant listed recommendations the Blue Sky board is making to Hill County Superintendent of Schools Shirley Isbell and the interim board she would appoint if consolidation is approved.
They include recommendations on staffing at the elementary and high schools, busing, buildings, how the interim board should be made up and how sports could be handled.
Grant noted in his newsletter that the interim board would make all decisions for the new district.
Ballard said the KG board did not make any recommendations, since the KG board would have no authority in a consolidated district.
While it's difficult to predict the future with any certainty, Grant said, if things remain the same, staffing levels and course offerings will be cut at Blue Sky if the districts don't consolidate.
"If there is no change, we have no choice but to cut," Grant said. "That is one reason I would hope we would get consolidation together."
Montana's public school funding formula includes a base entitlement for each district and funding on a per-student basis. The funding for the 2003-04 year was $19,456 for base elementary funding, $216,171 for base junior high-high school funding, about $3,900 for each elementary school student and about $5,200 for each junior high and high school student.
KG had an official enrollment of 51 seventh- through 12th-graders this year. Using KG's projected enrollment for next year, that will drop in five years to 29 seventh- through 12th-graders.
Using this year's per-student amount, that would result in a budget decrease of about $52,000 in state funds by the 2008-09 school year. The state provided about $357,000 to the KG district for the 2003-04 school year.
Blue Sky would drop from 68 seventh- through 12th-graders this year to 37 in the 2008-2009 school year. That amounts to about $72,000 fewer state dollars, using this year's per-student amount. The state provided about $409,000 to the Blue Sky district for the 2003-04 school year.
Grant said consolidating now will stabilize the budgets. The new district would have all of the per-student funding and would retain the base budgets for both districts for three years after consolidation. That would provide an extra $235,000 a year than a district with the same enrollment would normally receive. After three years, that extra funding would be phased out by 25 percent a year.
Ballard said there are too many unknowns to predict what the funding situation would be like for KG without consolidation.
The funding formula also could change, he said, especially since a state District Court judge ruled in April that the Montana education funding system does not provide enough money and must be changed.
Judge Jeffrey Sherlock ruled that the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a quality basic education because it is not providing enough funding. He made the ruling effective September 2005, which will allow the next Legislature to change the funding system.
The state is appealing that ruling to the Montana Supreme Court.
Isbell said today the consolidation would increase the state funding for the new district in another way. The state Office of Public Instruction has told her the new district would receive more revenue generated by a statewide mill levy used to fund public education. The increase would be about 8.5 percent, she said.
Grant said the voters could take a "wait-and-see attitude," but that runs the risk of the districts being worse off. The districts' budgets are decreasing each year, he said, and waiting will create a smaller combined budget to start the new district with.
"It makes sense to lock them in at higher rates," Grant said.
The Legislature could take action that hurts or even eliminates smaller schools, he added. It is possible that the Legislature could close the smaller Hi-Line schools in order to save money and have the students bused to the Havre and Shelby schools, Grant said.
He said he has heard many rumors over the last few months that aren't true. One is that if the high school is located in Rudyard, all of the KG high school teachers will be fired. State law doesn't allow that, he added.
Under state law, all teachers and classified staff from the consolidated districts go into a pool from which staffers for the new district would be selected. The primary consideration is tenure. The new board would make hiring decisions under the guidance of the state law.
Another rumor was that the busing system would change dramatically. Grant said the Blue Sky board is recommending that bus routes remain about the same, including the bus that picks up Havre students.
A concern KG residents have expressed at many meetings is that Havre students would quit coming to the high school if they had to travel the extra 12 miles to Rudyard. KG generally has 20 to 30 out-of-district students each year.
Ballard said during an April meeting that he had contacted the parents of all out-of-district students, and about three-quarters said they would continue to send their students to the district if the high school were located in Rudyard.
A main discussion topic at the public meetings on consolidation has been where the high school would be located. Many KG residents say they want it to remain in Gildford if the districts consolidate, while the Blue Sky board has said it wants to follow the recommendations a consulting team made in January 2003.
The consultants said the Blue Sky building is much better suited to house the grade seven through 12 students, and they saw no benefit of locating the junior high and high school in Gildford.
The location of the schools would be up to the interim board.
Another concern people in the districts have raised is that the interim board would favor one community.
Isbell said at a meeting earlier this month that state law requires a five-member board, plus one nonvoting member coming from the outlying elementary districts in KG.
She said she will select one board member from each of the four communities, and the board could structure that board so that the fifth member didn't give one community more representation. For instance, the board could make the chair a nonvoting member, she said.
Isbell said today six people have told her they are interested in being on the interim board, and two others have said they are considering it. The applicants are fairly evenly spread throughout the two districts, she said.
The interim board would exist only until the next school election, Isbell said. The makeup of the permanent board would be up to the people in the district at election time.
Community members have noted that more people live in the Blue Sky district, presumably giving Blue Sky the edge in elections. Blue Sky has 411 registered voters and KG has 342, according to the Hill County Clerk and Recorder's Office.
"If people are interested in ensuring that every area is appropriately represented, they need to file for a position as a trustee and, secondly, they need to get out and vote," Isbell said.
Grant argued that the consolidation would provide a better environment and allow more offerings and benefits for students. The teachers now teach up to six periods a day, and often advise or coach two or three extracurricular groups, he said. Having a larger pool of teachers and students could give teachers more time to prepare lessons and concentrate on classes, reduce responsibilities outside of classes, he said.
With the number of students in the two districts, Ballard said, he doesn't think enough classes can be scheduled to produce a significant benefit.
"The kids can only take so many classes a day," he said.
Grant said the elementary students would definitely benefit, with one teacher being assigned to each class. Now, grades one and two, three and four, and five and six are grouped together with one teacher each at Blue Sky.
That has led the parents of Blue Sky's sole fourth-grader to send the student to Chester next year, Grant said.
"Is that what we want them to do? No, but we have to look at what's best for the kids," he added.
He said the small class size, even in combined grades, does provide good one-on-one contact between the teacher and students, but it reduces the interaction and camaraderie larger classes produce.
"What it doesn't give you is a JV basketball program," he added.