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Consolidation will get a look in KG, Blue Sky

GILDFORD - The school boards of the Blue Sky and KG school districts have set up a joint board meeting on Thursday to reopen negotiations to combine the two districts, district officials said.

The meeting will be held April 1 at 8 p.m. at Blue Sky School, KG Superintendent John Ballard and Blue Sky Superintendent Terry Grant said this morning.

At 7 p.m. that evening, the KG school board will hold a special meeting at the high school in Gildford to vote to reopen the talks, Ballard said. The boards negotiated last year, but the KG school board decided not to pursue consolidation at that time.

The meetings were set up this morning. Thursday night an advisory board formed by the KG school district recommended that the KG school board reopen talks with the Blue Sky school board.

"I think maybe the board needs to take a good hard look at what the elementary school would look like if we consolidated," said Gildford resident David Miller, a member of the advisory board. With one fewer elementary school teacher this year and two all-day teachers remaining for six grades, the elementary school is down to the "bare bones," Miller said. "Maybe we ought to combine (the schools in) all six towns," he added.

In order for consolidation to happen, the school boards of KG and Blue Sky would both need to vote in favor of consolidation, and then voters in both districts would have to approve it.

"I see this as so divisive in our community," advisory board member Kay Jorgenson, a teacher in Gildford, said at Thursday night's meeting. "It will never go away until it goes to a vote."

The earliest that consolidation would be able to go into effect would be fall of 2005, Ballard said.

The advisory board meeting, which lasted more than two hours, involved lengthy discussion among Ballard, KG school board members, the advisory board, and several community members who attended the meeting.

Some residents said consolidation would allow the schools to offer more classes to students.

Advisory board member Margaret Donoven said she is considering sending her son to high school in Havre next year if the districts don't consolidate, because he wants to have a better selection of math classes.

"I cannot possibly see how it would not benefit us academically to consolidate Blue Sky and (KG)," Donoven said. She said she believes people in the KG district are in favor of consolidation.

Blue Sky School board member Lyle Petersen told the advisory board that if consolidation were put to a vote, he thinks about 90 percent of Blue Sky voters would be in favor of it.

Community member Todd Donoven said the KG district keeps cutting classes and teachers, and that consolidation could keep them.

"You've got to think about students," he said.

Without consolidation, Ballard said, it is estimated that over the next five years, enrollment in the elementary school will stay relatively constant, enrollment in the high school will go down slightly, and the middle school will experience a sharp decline. Overall enrollment will decline slightly if the numbers of out-of-district students remains the same, he said.

Initially after consolidation, he said, both districts would get the same amount of funding they had before, meaning an increase of money for the new district. That additional funding is gradually phased out over about six years, though, so the financial benefits of consolidation are temporary, he added.

There are other uncertainties involved with consolidation. KG gets about a quarter of its enrollment from students outside the district who choose to go to school there - students who are within the Havre and Cottonwood districts, for example. If the school moves farther west, it is unclear whether the extra distance will mean that some of the outside students will opt to go to schools closer to home, Ballard said.

"If we've got something that they really value, I would bet they would go 10 miles farther," said Jan Donoven, a member of the advisory board and an elementary teacher at Kremlin.

"There's no guarantee," said KG school board member Mitzi Dees.

"What's going to happen in six years when we're down to this little number (of students) again because we've lost our feed from the east?" she said.

If Havre students no longer come to school there, Blue Sky's budget would have to absorb the resulting decrease in funding, Ballard said.

If the districts consolidated, the new district eventually might have to eliminate eight teaching positions, KG school board member JoHanna Kapperud said.

"It's not that I'm against consolidation, but that's my concern," she said.

Dees said she doesn't want to have to pick and choose which teachers to keep.

Some community members said that within a few years after consolidation, enough teachers might retire or leave so the district wouldn't have to lay off teachers.

In addition, Ballard said, consolidation would be a complex process. State law is not clear about a host of logistical issues involved in consolidation, like what happens with the districts' building reserves and technology levies and how to make the transition between two school boards to a single board of the new consolidated district.

Ballard said those are issues may be clarified by the School Renewal Commission, a group of education officials and legislators meeting this year to develop a set of education policy recommendations to propose to the state Legislature in 2005.

Community members said they want voters in the district to have a say.

"I would like to have a chance to at least vote," Todd Donoven said.

First, Ballard said, the districts will have to have a "pretty solid agreement in place" detailing which towns the new schools would be in and what teachers and classes would be affected.

If the two school boards favor consolidation, they will work out those details.

Also at Thursday night's meeting the advisory board discussed the feasibility of closing the elementary school in Kremlin and moving it into the high school in Gildford to save money.

KG is faced with having to cut about $48,700 from the high school budget over the next three years and about $25,400 out of the elementary budget next year.


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