The smallest schools in the state should be merged with nearby larger districts, and a bill could go before the Montana Legislature in January to authorize such a change, according to the state’s largest labor union.
If successful, the plan would eliminate 85 school districts, including four in Gallatin County. Though the districts would be absorbed by larger districts in the area, the schools themselves would stay open, at least for six years, according to Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, which represents the lion’s share of the state’s teachers.
Consolidation would mean better distribution of property tax wealth and would benefit students as well, Feaver said.
Presently, local school boards have control over such decisions.
The consolidation effort would affect only schools with fewer than 25 students. In Gallatin County, that includes Springhill, Pass Creek, Cottonwood and Malmborg elementary schools, according to a list provided by Feaver’s office.
But opponents say the proposal has already been around the block a time or two and called the suggestion another union power grab.
According to Feaver, the state has 429 school districts for 142,082 students (331 students per district), compared to Wyoming’s 48 districts for 87,420 students (1,821 students per district).
Montana’s number of school districts greatly surpass other bordering states as well. North Dakota has 185 districts for 94,998 students (513 students per district), South Dakota has 152 school districts for 122,055 students (802 students per district) and Idaho has 115 school districts for 278,000 students (2,417 students per district).
Feaver said a bill is being drafted for the 2011 legislative session that would accomplish the consolidation. The smaller districts would retain the basic tax entitlement for six years, and the schools would be prohibited from closing for six years.
Feaver, whose union represents 18,000 teachers, support staff and state and county employees, said 85 elementary school districts have less than 25 students. If those 85 districts would merge with larger districts, and schools were not closed, he believes there could be better distribution of the property tax roll.
Dave Puyear, executive director of the Montana Rural Education Association, opposes any suggestion of forced consolidation.
“It won’t save a dime in Montana,” he said. “There is no significant money at the state level to be saved. Every place that has done this has found it doesn’t work.
“If we’re not going to save any money and going to increase hard feelings across our state, why would we do this?” Puyear asked.
Feaver said he did not know if the idea would save money.
“The primary reason would be to eliminate 85 taxing jurisdictions,” he said. “We don’t believe there is any way to obtain property tax or natural resource equity until we carve away the huge number of school districts we have in state.
“We have to think about positive tax and resource obligation this legislation would have,” he said.
He said the teachers in the smaller districts would merge into the larger districts and likely get a salary increase.
“I am certain that in 85 school districts, we’d be lucky to find 100 teachers,” he said, adding perhaps there would also be some clerks in the smaller districts.
A spokeswoman for the stateOffice of Public Instruction said the department is waiting to see the final version of the bill, and what other proposals will be considered in the 2011 session. Until then it was premature to offer a comment.
Puyear said this is an old issue that the MEA is bringing up, adding there were hearings 30 years ago that became the largest set of hearings in the state.
“It was the darnedest situation of misinformation and misleading information that you ever saw,” he said. “We could be staring at that kind of thing again. Eric (Feaver) is again rustling those bushes.”
He said what it usually accomplishes is an increase in controversy and people’s concern and access to local government.
“These rural communities take a lot of pride in their schools,” Puyear said. “If we’re not going to save any money and going to increase hard feelings across our state, why would we do this?”
He called Feaver’s proposal “self serving,” adding:
“As a fourth generation Montanan, 30-year educator, I think it’s disgusting,” he said. “It will devastate all rural communities if they lose schools.”
He said many rural residents traditionally are not good union members.
“If you think about it, it’s the Wal-Mart effect; bigger is always better,” Puyear said. “Let’s just rip out the heart of the school, let’s just rip out the leadership and let’s rip the guts out of those schools, let’s just consolidate with other schools.”
He said it was “misleading” to say Montana had over 400 school districts and said one time he was superintendent of three districts in Cascade, for a total of three buildings.
He said a more accurate count would be about 190 districts.
Darrell Rud, executive director of School Administrators of Montana, which through five affiliates represents nearly 800 school leaders in the state, said he was also opposed to any forced consolidations. He said a proposal by the Legislative Fiscal Division said consolidating high schools within 120 miles of each other would save $3.4 million.
“That’s not exactly chicken feed, but if you’re addressing a $300-$400 million (budget) shortfall, it’s a drop in the bucket,” he said.
Rud said he is a product of rural schools, albeit in another state.
“I need to frame my response that way,” he said. “... my heart is in the rural areas.”
Rud said a study by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association found that legislative mergers are not sound policy. He said the report found there could be adverse affects on achievement, no documented savings, didn’t take into consideration about kids in well-functioning small school districts become part of bigger school.
He said one to two school districts are closing every year in Montana due mostly to low enrollments.
“Some parts of Montana are running short on kids and it’s getting very hard to find teachers to come in at miniscule salaries,” Rud said.
He said he hoped any decision would be made with the best interests of the students in mind.
“There are some awesome rural environments that are producing awesome Ivy League students,” he said. “I am hopeful the local people will be the key ones to make the decision and I hope they do it for the right reasons.”
A list of the school districts that could be affected is attached to this story.