Havre-area residents get experts opinions on ed funding first-hand
By Ron VandenBoom
Area legislators and educators fielded questions from about 25 area residents Wednesday night concerning what effect tighter budgets are going to have on local schools suffering from declining enrollments and funding increases that do not even cover the cost of inflation.
The consensus of opinion among educators last night was that schools will survive, but there are a lot of unanswered questions about how much more of the belt can be tightened before significant cuts will have to be made.
Kirk Miller, superintendent of Havre Public Schools, told the crowd a 4 percent decrease in enrollment in Havre, coupled with a 3 percent inflation rate, when compared to a 1.8 percent increase in funding from the Legislature, translates into a 3 percent decline in funding. A figure that fails to even keep up with the rate of inflation.
It was a story repeated by Ellis Parry, superintendent of Blue Sky Public Schools, and Jay Eslick, superintendent of Chinook Public Schools.
Paul Preeshl, superintendent of Box Elder Public School was the only superintendent to expressed little concern over the level of funding his school will receive from HB-121 (the states K-12 funding bill) because of what he said was federal funding and grants that seem to increase every year and funnel about $800,000 a year into the Box Elder system to meet the needs of Indian students.
"If we had to operate on the dollars available to the other schools," Preeshl said. "We would be closing our doors."
Eslick said Chinook is looking at some "pretty significant cuts," and added that Chinook could be looking at Class C status in about five years due to declining student enrollment. Current enrollment stands at about 170 and Eslick expects that figure to drop to 130 or 140 in the next few years.
"Right now we're tightening the belt, but the ceiling keeps coming down," he said.
Eslick said Chinook schools will meet the most recent funding crisis by cutting back on supplies, professional development opportunities, "and we won't spend as much this year on travel," he said.
Other possibilities Eslick said could include cutting the number of offerings in a department such as English or cutting a teacher or part of a teacher.
All of the superintendents were optimistic about some of the legislation passed by the legislature this session because it provides for a long-term revenue stream.
HB-493 and HB-495 will both, over time, create greater funding from state lands by allowing a percentage of education trust fund revenues to be invested in stocks rather than bonds and diverting revenues from mineral royalties into education.
Alex Capdeville, chancellor of MSU-Northern, told the crowd that Northern too received some good news from the legislature in the form of approval of bonding for the new Applied Technology Center for the campus. But he also sees a $200-$300 a year increase in tuition.
But what Northern needs is to do a better job of marketing the school and attracting new students to the campus, Capdeville said. He added that he is optimistic about increases in student numbers through the coming year despite disappointing figures for the fall.
Capdeville said Northern is also working to get Ford Motor Company to place a training center on campus.
Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, told the crowd that residents should be optimistic and confident in Northern's future because the school received about one-sixth of all the money the Legislature approved this session for capital projects. But Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, warned area residents to not get too comfortable with the idea because there is always talk in the Legislature about closing one of the schools in the University System.
Tester said people along the Hi-Line "need to have their antenna up" regarding any suggestion that the university be closed.
Rep. Merlin Wolery, R-Rudyard, received credit from his democratic colleagues for supporting education during this legislative session and Rep. John Musgrove, D-Havre, told the crowd Wolery was a co-signer of one of his pet bills, HB-625, which will study the current education funding mechanism and make recommendations to the 2003 legislative session.
Wolery was also asked about another one of his bills that would extend time school districts could receive additional funding if they agreed to merge. HB-488 allows schools that merge to receive two basic entitlement payments for three years and receive a gradually declining amount of funding for an additional three years.