After months of work, Bozeman’s school board voted Monday to approve a plan that would reduce the district’s budget by $4.1 million, likely resulting in the elimination of multiple teaching positions.
But exactly how many positions will be cut is largely dependent on the fate of a tax increase that will be put to voters in May.
Even if the levy passes, the district is set to lose a notable number of teaching positions, which could have some concerning outcomes, parents, teachers, trustees and the Bozeman Education Association said.
According to the plans put forward at the Monday meeting, the teaching positions will be reduced almost evenly across all grade levels.
If the levy fails, K-8 will lose what amounts to the equivalent of 13 full-time positions, and the high school is projected to lose 14. If the levy passes, those numbers would be closer to 10 for both K-8 and high school. Most of the K-8 positions will be slashed in the middle schools.
Superintendent Casey Bertram said the district’s goal is to find these positions in the form of retirees or contact workers whose contracts are ending, but it’s still unclear if that will be entirely possible.
Even if the district is able to rely on retirements and the reduction of temporary workers (and not fire individual people), it still means that there will be fewer teachers because those positions will not be rehired.
The elimination of teaching positions could result in fewer elective classes and bigger class sizes with less teacher attention, said Trustee Douglas Fischer.
“Every time you have an increase in class size, that’s not good,” Tami Phillippi, president of the Bozeman Education Association that represents the district’s teachers, said in an interview with Montana Free Press “That’s a concern to me.”
Phillippi noted that fewer teachers could mean less attention for students who are struggling. While Phillippi has her concerns, the teacher’s union worked with the trustees to form the budget reduction plan.
But both Bertram and Phillippi told MTFP that they’re confident the cuts will not hinder student learning, in part by getting “creative” with class scheduling.
“Staffing cuts automatically equals cuts to kids? We’re not willing to say that’s true,” Bertram said.
But one parent is more wary.
“It already feels like the schools are short-staffed in general. They already don’t have the staff to give the kids the support they need,” Megan Hansen, a district parent, said in an interview.
Her son, who’s in kindergarten will “feel the repercussions for the rest of his education in Bozeman,” she added.
THE MILL LEVY
A significant portion of Bozeman’s school funding comes from levies that voters must pass, and those school-related levies have had a high success rate on the ballot in recent decades. Since 1980, Bozeman residents have only rejected two levies: one in 1983 and one in 2008.
This upcoming levy is a school safety levy and would infuse roughly $2 million dollars in taxpayer money into the public school budget.
But, if passed, this levy alone will be a 3% increase to Bozeman resident’s public school taxes, said Mike Waterman, executive director of business and operations for the district.
Requesting that voters commit to a tax increase this large comes in the midst of mounting property taxes and the rapidly increasing cost of living in Bozeman, making this levy one of the biggest asks in years, Waterman said.
“I am concerned about the taxes,” said Trustee Fischer, calling it “a hefty increase.”
But Waterman, Phillippi, Fischer and several other trustees said they have faith in Bozeman voters to push this measure through.
“Let’s hope the Bozeman community understands how important the levy is,” Phillippi said.
The board landed on these plans after months of work and two votes Monday during a meeting that included comments from multiple members of the public.
The concerns of the commenters were numerous, chief among them the impact of cutting fine arts staff. And no matter if the levy passes, the fine arts department is set to take staffing hits. If the levy passes, the fine arts director would likely be changed to a teacher on special assignment, as opposed to a permanent staff position. If it fails, the fine arts office would be reduced to one staff member, according to the plans that passed.
A one-person office “would crush us,” director of orchestras Mike Certalic told MTFP following the meeting. Certalic explained that teachers are already at a “breaking point” with the amount of administrative work they have to do in addition to teaching duties. Removing that position would increase that burden, he said.
Those who advocated for maintaining a fine arts director said that the arts are a huge part of what makes Bozeman schools desirable, helps students’ mental health, teaches them to think creatively and solve problems, and keeps them passionate about school in general.
In some ways it’s no surprise that the fine arts director is on the chopping block. Since the position was created 54 years ago, there has been discussion of eliminating it or shifting it to a temporary position during every director’s tenure, said Renee Westlake, a retired teacher who was with the district from 1976 to 2015 and worked as the director for the last 15 years of her career.
But this time feels different.
“This is the most serious it’s been,” Westlkake said.
AN IMBALANCED BUDGET
The budget cuts became necessary in recent years after the district opened a costly second high school, enrollment rates dropped at the elementary level, birth rates went down in the area, and the cost of living soared, making it harder for young families to move into the district.
The $4.1 million reduction is coming out of a $57 million budget.
According to Bertram, when discussing opening a second high school, the board knew they’d have budget challenges. But with the onset of the pandemic, slowing enrollment rates and other unaccounted for factors, the challenge became greater than originally anticipated, the superintendent explained
Even so, Bertram maintains that opening the second high school was the right decision.
The budget reduction plans that passed Monday did not just include staffing cuts, however.
The elementary budget plan also includes the closure of the Bozeman Charter School if the levy does not pass. The board also voted to decrease department budgets by 10%, which is projected to save $340,000 between the high school and K-8 levels. Extracurricular fees are also slated to increase, which is set to raise $47,000. Neither the department budget or extracurricular fee changes are contingent on the passage of the levy.
Before these plans were passed, the trustees and other stakeholders considered a four-day school week, closing an elementary school and freezing employee pay. These options are no longer on the table.
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