By Paula Wilmot
Your youngest son is looking forward to the Environmental Education unit and the field trips his older siblings enjoyed in elementary school. Then, he learns the Environmental Education unit was eliminated two years ago.
Your middle-school son is struggling with math concepts. You can’t help him, and math tutors and after-school helpers aren’t available anymore.
Your soccer-playing daughter and her teammates are washing cars, selling raffle tickets and bagging groceries so the team can buy warm-up pants they need for cold games and practices.
Why is this happening?
School budget cuts totaling more than $10 million over the last decade have pushed administrators and teachers up against the blade of inflation in their quest to provide the best opportunities for Great Falls students.
This constant budget buzz saw is forcing some drastic priority shifts in what schools can offer.
Sadly, changing priorities have led to the elimination of traditional summer school, the Environmental Ed program, Hip Hop after-school homework club, field trips and enrichment for gifted students.
In the last decade, over 100 teaching positions were cut.
Over that same period, the amount of money the district spent to educate each student dropped more than 20 percent.
At the elementary level, $91.60 per student has to be stretched to cover instructional supplies and paper goods – even toilet paper, paper towels, and garbage sacks – in addition to technology and safety equipment, balls and nets for the playground and library books.
Many of those items used to be covered at the district level. Now, the schools’ building budgets have absorbed the costs while at the same time, the per-pupil amounts that make up the building budgets have been reduced.
Cuts to the budgets are exacerbated by cuts imposed by inflation. Desk costs significantly more today than it did 10 years ago.
Shrinking building budgets also provide allotments to teachers for some classroom amenities, but other assistance to teachers, including staff development and training sessions for first-, second- and third-year teachers have been eliminated. The local training went beyond what young teachers learned while student teaching. Administrators and teachers alike mourn the loss of this training.
Staff development and mentoring programs are crucial to make teaching less exhausting and demoralizing, according to Rae Smith, Sacajawea Elementary principal. The frustration factor is lessened when teachers can learn from each other and network, she explained.
“Teachers have been extremely creative to help us make this budget work,” says Luke Diekhans, principal of Riverview Elementary.
PTA grants, School Foundation grants and other grants that our teachers are discovering are making up some of the difference, he added.
Some cuts leave collateral damage too. For example, Environmental Ed used to manage the elementary science program. It was cut two years ago.
PTA groups have been supportive of technology and safety needs facing every school, according to Smith.
The district does a masterful job of equipment management, she added, shuffling and sharing equipment among all schools in order to maximize resources. “Even lunch tables,” she says.
The Sacajawea PTA raised money for security cameras for the school’s hallways and playgrounds. PTA groups also pitch in to pay for busing for the annual fifth-grade field trip to the C.M. Russell Museum.
Stretching money to cover changing priorities is a huge challenge, according to Kerry Parsons, C.M. Russell High School principal.
Schools have to serve the needs of growing numbers of students who are struggling academically, socially and emotionally. Sadly, the purse that pays for counseling for abused and addicted students also must cover the instructional supplies and daily needs of the entire student body.
Homelessness, abuse and addiction issues are relatively new school problems.
Sensory items are another new need. Elementary schools are finding that trauma victims and other students with high sensory needs do better with special equipment, like rocking chairs, wobble stools, and hand-held devices for fidgety fingers.
The increasing need for building budgets to be expended for such things as renewable supplies and professional development limits opportunities for growth in what schools can offer students.
“We want to give kids the opportunity to take as much as they can, but budgetary pressures choke your schedule,” Parsons says.
Staff cuts at Great Falls High School meant cutting welding classes so that only one-third as many students can take advantage of that opportunity, according to Heather Hoyer, assistant superintendent for secondary schools. The cut is regrettable because welding is a vocational skill in high demand.
Cuts to classroom allotments, coupled with inflation, have caused teachers to resort to out-of-pocket spending which administrators say could average $450
per teacher per year.
In schools where breakfast isn’t available, teachers are buying granola bars and other snacks to help hungry students focus on school until lunchtime. Teachers also give students money for lunch and even buy underwear and socks for those who need them. Hoyer knows teachers who buy adult diapers for special needs students.
Extracurricular activities, like sports and clubs, and co-curricular pursuits, like band, pose more challenges to the stretched budgets.
“We want to provide those activities, but the reality is that we can’t unless they raise funds on their own,” Parsons says.
He praises the community for supporting the fundraising by purchasing discount cards, fruit, and other student enterprises.
Prioritizing means balancing mental health issues with field trips, for example.
Field trips at the high school level are history. After school, academic assistance has been reduced and Saturday School for struggling students has been cut to four hours. Summer school has been cut to two weeks, limiting opportunities for credit recovery to put students back on track to graduation.
Another impact of the budget crunch that concerns Parsons is the loss of a guidance counselor to work with students with social, emotional and addiction issues, as well as college-bound and honor students.
This is an area where the needs have grown tremendously, he says.
Safety is another huge concern. Cameras help. So do human door monitors, when available. Metal detectors may also help but are cost-prohibitive. The new hub at GFHS improves access control for safety there, but the CMR campus poses problems because of its separate buildings for music, physical education, shop, and STEM.
High school libraries are required by accreditation standards to provide old and new research methods. In addition to books, that means computers and the schools work to keep the technology up-to-date with refurbished equipment.
Teachers, as well as students, depend on technology.
“We need to keep technology up with the phones in the students’ hands,” Hoyer says.
In the last 12 years, Great Falls voters have approved only two mill levies to help stop the budget bleeding.
Passage of the $98 million bond issue in 2016 was a stellar accomplishment and schools across the district are seeing significant structural additions and improvements because of that vote. A new school, Giant Springs Elementary, has opened and a new Longfellow Elementary is under construction. GFH and CMR have seen major additions with more to come.
Many took the bond issue vote to be a sign that the tide was turning in the community’s willingness to support schools. Instead, many people feel they’re off the hook.
They say “We gave them $98 million. They don’t need anymore.”
That couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The bond issue proceeds to fund brick-and-mortar improvements, not the day-to-day needs for computers, toilet paper, and soccer balls. Levy support is vital.
Administrators are concerned that declining school budgets and the lack of attractive salary packages for classified employees and teachers put the district on the cusp of turnover issues.
They say it’s a struggle to fill positions already. Applicants are opting to work for school districts with more money and where the community supports mill levies.
Great Falls can’t continue to force schools to do more with less.
Help us pass the School Levy on May 5, 2020.