By Paula Wilmot
After a decade of budget free fall, teachers and administrators of Great Falls Public Schools have high hopes.
High hopes to maintain – not cut – and maybe even restore programs for students.
High hopes to make schools safer.
High hopes to improve a technology program that is second from the bottom of per-student allocations among Montana’s Class A and AA schools.
Public school staff members have high hopes that taxpayers will pass a $1.75 million elementary tax levy and say YES to supporting Great Falls kids.
In the last decade, GFPS saw more than $10 million in cuts, resulting in the loss of 102 teachers. In the past decade, the district asked taxpayers to support four levies. Only two passed. Sadly, everything that those two levies added to GFPS was lost in succeeding years.
What will it cost to support the proposed levy this time? It will add $16.27 to the taxes on a $100,000 home and $32.50 on a $200,000 home.
Is it worth it? Let’s do the math.
The state covers 80 percent of public-school funding, while local taxpayers are expected to pay the remaining 20 percent. Currently, Great Falls taxpayers cover only 17.3 percent, leaving the district lacking.
Speaking of math, the district eliminated all elementary school math tutors in the past 10 years.
As positions are cut, the number of students per teacher increases.
As student numbers increase, individual teacher time per student decreases. Kids are getting less individual attention even as their individual needs are increasing. This is basic math.
Classrooms are overloaded in 12 of the district’s 15 elementary schools, more evidence that kids get less teacher time.
It goes beyond math. Elementary social studies resources are 19 years old. Some teachers in the district use the same social studies textbooks that they used as students.
New materials will be easier to purchase if the levy passes, but because of the cost, it will still require a multi-year process to get the job done, said to Shelly Kelly, co-coordinator of curriculum for the district.
Other teaching materials, such as workbooks are problematic too. There is no budget for these consumable materials. Most workbooks cost $10 per student, so for 900 students, it would be $9,000. To save that expense, teachers simply make do without.
“Knowledge builds upon knowledge, but sadly teachers and administrators fear their students’ quantity and quality of knowledge declines with each year when using outdated resource materials with little or no access to rich, current curriculum,” says Kelly.
“Instruction suffers despite the work teachers do to search for updated, current materials that we, as a district, should be providing.”
The district wants to install safety alarm poles outside buildings to warn community members and staff not to enter the buildings in the event of a security breach. The equipment is in place at the new elementary schools, Giant Springs and Longfellow, and it makes sense to have them at all schools.
In addition, the district is purchasing a UHF radio system for emergencies. Administrators said they couldn’t foresee the need for such communication years ago, but now see its value. Some PTA groups are raising money for such efforts, but funds are needed to ensure all schools are safe.
The school board reviewed technology options during discussions about setting levies. Great Falls schools lag behind Billings, Missoula, Helena, Bozeman, Kalispell and Butte in community support of technology levies – only ahead of Belgrade, which is new to Class AA. Billings taxpayers cover $2 million of the district’s technology costs. We pay $228,316.
Great Falls shouldn’t be content to rank at such low levels.
Because the Great Falls district is second to the bottom of all Montana AA and A school districts in support of technology, part of the elementary levy will be used for technology equipment and curriculum-related expenses, said Brian Patrick, director of business operations for the school district.
The most important thing educators can do, besides sustaining positive relationships with students, is to provide students with as many opportunities as possible through rich, relevant curriculum, Kelly says. “We want to provide instructional resources to help them become productive citizens of Great Falls and the world.”
Passage of the $98 million bond issue in 2016 was a landmark accomplishment, and schools across the district saw significant structural additions and improvements because of it. One new elementary school has opened and another is under construction. GFH and CMR have seen major additions with more to come.
But to be clear:
Bonds are for buildings; levies are for learning. Voters were generous in funding improvements to our buildings, but the learning inside them is suffering.
Levy support is vital. Teachers and children in Great Falls classrooms have high hopes that voters will say YES to the levy on May 5.