By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Joplin-Inverness and Chester public schools are holding a meeting Monday to inform voters about plans to consolidate the districts.
Liberty County Superintendent of Schools Rachel Ghekiere said Thursday the meeting is one of several organized by a committee composed of members of both districts' school boards, student bodies and residents.
"It is just a fact-finding committee that's been established to talk about the consolidation," she said.
She added that how the consolidation would take place, including what buildings would be used and what classes and activities would be offered, would be up to the school board appointed to oversee consolidation.
"All the public can vote on is whether to consolidate or not," she said.
Ghekiere said the school boards have set the election for Jan. 4.
"They are going to stick with that date simply because a lot of things have to be accomplished if they are going to do that consolidation," she said.
The proposed consolidation is the second in recent months on the Hi-Line. After nearly two years of heated discussion, voters in the Kremlin-Gildford and Blue Sky districts approved consolidation last June. An interim board is now preparing to consolidate the two districts.
J-I Superintendent Ed Warner-Combs said people in his district who support consolidation are concerned about declining enrollment.
Numbers show a steady decline. In the 2002-2003 school year, the Montana Office of Public Instruction listed J-I's enrollment at 54, down from 64 in the 1999-2000 school year.
J-I now has 48 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, Warner-Combs said.
Chester's enrollment shows a similar drop. OPI lists its 2002-2003 enrollment as 176, down from 194 in 1999-2000.
Warner-Combs said that despite the drop in enrollment, the district has not lost programs and still has a full slate of offerings for students.
He declined to speculate on what the future might bring if the consolidation fails.
"I can't tell you what future enrollments might be," he said.
Chester High School principal Pam Graff said people in the districts seem to be sharply split over the issue.
"It really varies amazingly," she said.
The Chester-J-I consolidation must be approved in both districts to proceed. If it is approved, Ghekiere will appoint an interim school board to oversee the consolidation. The interim board would be replaced with permanent board members in school district elections.
Consolidation would provide extra funding initially. The consolidated district would receive the base funding for both districts for three years. Each elementary school now gets $20,000 and each high school gets more than $200,000 in base funding. One set of base funding would then be phased out.
The state Legislature will be looking at ways to change the funding of public schools. The state Supreme Court on Nov. 9 upheld a lower court ruling that found funding to be inadequate and ordered the 2005 Legislature to create a new funding formula.
Ghekiere said some people are concerned that the Legislature might eliminate the funding incentive for consolidation.