Florescent lights, plastic chairs and hard decisions

Twin Bridges School Board on budget

The March 9 Twin Bridges School Board meeting had budget considerations listed on the agenda for the sixth time. Ultimately, at 12:15 a.m., the board decided to table the conversation for another meeting.

Before getting into the specifics, it seems important to note the dedication of the board members, administration and members of the public who attended this meeting both virtually and in-person for the entire duration. Florescent lights, uncomfortable plastic chairs and difficult decisions likely led to headaches and backaches for the entire next day.

Prior to getting into the meat of the conversation, Board Chair Steve Janzen reminded those in attendance that the action the board is able to take revolves around authorizing Superintendent Thad Kaiser to begin the process of terminating or reassigning positions within the district.

The district’s Average Number of Belonging (ANB) has been declining since 2015. One way a school district receives funding is based on the ANB. To summarize how the board and administration got to this meeting, Janzen stated, “The cause of our budgetary issues is declining enrollment.” The highest amount attributed to the general fund since Kaiser has been in the district was $2,220,000. The projected estimate by the Office of Public Instruction (OPI) for FY 2022 is $2,140,000.

Kaiser highlighted the different impacts of budget shortfalls—less money for supplies, maintaining facilities, materials for student learning, professional development and curriculum. Regarding supplies and curriculum, he pointed out that some of the district’s history books have not been updated since 2005.

Throughout his tenure, Kaiser explained that he has moved money from other areas to the general fund, which was short about $80,000 last year. He no longer feels comfortable doing that. The number the district needs to save now sits at $89,000, realized from estimating that the district would need a similar amount as the year before, and an OPI budget forecast.

After going through background information, the board got into discussing their options to reach that number.

Board members considered moving to volunteer positions for assistant coaches, pep squad, line judges, statisticians, and potentially eliminating the strength coach position; evaluated contracted services, such as IT, and determined IT services must remain; reviewed nontenured positions; considered hiring a part-time elementary principal; considered reductions in different programs including agricultural education, industrial arts and library; and finally considered certified staff.

At the beginning of the meeting before the budget conversation began, Kaiser brought up a framework to address ‘system level change across classrooms to provide students with the best possible opportunities.’ Montana Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) uses a framework for all students in different ability levels to assess how each student is performing throughout the year by testing, interventions and conversations with teachers, administration and families, essentially creating an individual learning plan for each student.

During the nontenured staff conversation, there was discussion of combining early elementary classes to reduce force and save money. Many board members felt this would not help address the concerns Kaiser raised by presenting the MTSS program. Along the same lines, Kaiser felt a full-time principal would be necessary for providing younger students with the best early education possible.

A motion to reduce the elementary principal position to half time failed 2 to 3.

“The purpose of starting this meeting with MTSS, I was hopeful that it is clear what I think. And the conversations I’ve had with staff is, this is the priority. I cannot state it enough,” Kaiser said, going on to point out that 37% of Twin Bridges students are struggling with reading when that number statistically should be no higher than 20%. Additionally, he provided that only 63% of K-4 students are on level in reading and only 46% of K-4 students are on level in math, when those numbers statistically should be 80-90%.

“That is where our efforts should be. There is no other place than that area that we should focus our attention,” he said.

On the other side of the spectrum, considering force and extracurricular program reductions, many members of the public and board advocated strongly for Career and Technical Education (CTE) classes.

Board member Jaime Wood eventually moved to reduce the industrial arts program to 1.0, the agricultural education program to 0.5—combining the two to result in a 1.5 program—and reducing the library program to 0.5. Regarding these numbers, OPI provides accreditation requirements for districts based on enrollment. For example, Twin Bridges is required to have a minimum of a 0.5 library program. The current library program sits at 0.8.

The board passed reducing the library program to 0.5, 5 to 0.

“I just want to reiterate my passion for agricultural education and the reason for bringing forward this motion was so we can get it on the table and get some answers that have been lingering out there, and I do feel like we should be provided more information,” Wood said.

He ended up rescinding this motion, which resulted in the board tabling the program reduction discussion until a follow up meeting on March 17 at 7 p.m. Many board members and members of the public felt a need for more insight from teachers and drafts schedules for the next school year with reassignments and potential program reductions in place before making a concrete decision.

As a blanket statement, it is the board’s goal to retain all current positions.

Onto new business, the board discussed possible use of a lot owned by the district for teacher or general public housing. Janzen got an email from a local realtor who received a proposal from a developer regarding purchasing the lot and building multi-family housing. The developer stated willingness to prioritize district staff.

“We really feel that the lack of housing in the district is the root of our enrollment problems, so anything that we can do to solve that would be a step in solving our budget problems,” Janzen said.

Janzen and Wood are both a part of a housing committee made up of local community members and supported by Headwaters RC&D. Housing inventory is decreasing across the Ruby and Madison Valleys and anything priced near market value is sold rapidly.

A motion was made to allocate $52,300 for the installation of security cameras on premises and to be used for areas of structural concern found in the gym brought to the school by Northern Rockies Engineering. This was passed as a non-voted levy.

The board also approved sending a vote to taxpayers for a general fund levy increase with the maximum budget at $2,164,000, which would result in an increase of about $15,000 in the general fund.

The board approved the March Madness basketball tournament and facility use agreements for sports banquets and prom in the gym. They allowed Kaiser greater flexibility in approving facility use requests in relation to COVID-19.

The meeting adjourned at 1:23 a.m.

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