By GWEN FLORIO
Great Falls Tribune Capitol Bureau
Great Falls, Montana
POWER — Power, population 171, likes to poke fun at its small size. A wooden sign at the edge of town says, "Power: Next Five Exits," referring to the five streets that intersect the main road. The joking stops inside Power's low brick school building, where small is an educational plus but makes for a failing grade financially, according to Principal Jon Konen.
Even as the new plan to pay for public education moved at warp speed through the Legislature's two-day special session, lawmakers in both parties worried about its effect on the state's smallest districts. In the end, the Legislature adopted a one-size-fits-all plan that was signed into law last week by Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Konen lost no time in e-mailing the governor with his opinion of the new law.
"I said, 'I hope you have a plan for two to three years down the road,'" Konen said. He worries, among other things, about losing teachers to higher-paying jobs in the Great Falls schools.
Teaching salaries in Montana lag behind those elsewhere in the country. The average salary of about $36,000 ranked 47th nationwide in 2002-03, according to the American Federation of Teachers.
"The biggest issue in the small schools, bar none, is that the salaries are lower," said Dave Puyear, director of the Montana Rural Education Association, which was among a coalition of schools and education groups that fought unsuccessfully for more money for teachers in the new plan.
Power, where teachers' salaries start at just under $21,000, is only 20 miles northwest of Great Falls, where a starting teacher makes $27,000, and where those with the most experience and education can make nearly $54,000.
Tara Ferriter, the only teacher for the Canyon Creek School outside Helena, can't even imagine that kind of money. With 10 students in first through fifth grades, Canyon Creek is one of the state's smallest districts.
"The smaller schools can't even offer a salary scale," said Ferriter. "It doesn't even behoove us to get more (college) credits because we don't even have a pay scale we can climb," said Ferriter.
The new money from the Legislature isn't going to change that situation for the smaller districts, Puyear said.
"I don't want to sound ungrateful. We're thankful for the money," he said. But a large district can find more ways to squirrel away money for 2007 than a smaller one, he said. The new law gives Montana's public schools an additional $71 million next year, on top of the $32 million allocated in the Legislature's regular session last January, the largest single increase in more than a decade.
About half the $71 million is for one-time-only programs such as weatherization and maintenance, and to defray energy costs.
Steve Zimmerman, business manager for the Power schools, said the extra money for fuel and heating costs won't help much. Power will get roughly $2,000 from the state, but so far this winter, Zimmerman is paying about $2,000 a month just for gas for the school buses, compared with $1,400 a month last year.
Schools also will get $2,000 per teacher or administrator annually, money that districts can use however they want, although the idea is to help attract and retain teachers. The smallest districts would like to put it all toward salaries, but higher salaries mean higher benefits, which will cost the districts more down the line.
"There's no benefit any more because of the multiplying effect," said Tim Tharp, superintendent of the newly consolidated Dutton-Brady district, 35 miles northwest of Great Falls. "In the long run it looks nice, but I don't know that it really solves anything," said Tharp, whose district has about 200 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, including 50 at the Birch Creek and Pondera Hutterite colonies.
Some of the small districts are dealing with steeply declining enrollments, and fewer students mean less money from the state, even though many costs, such as maintenance, stay about the same, administrators said. Calvin Johnson, superintendent for the Belt schools, 20 miles southeast of Great Falls, said his district has lost 25 percent of its students in six years.
In 2000, the district had about 400 students; he expects it to be down to about 250 by decade's end. Its budgets have been flat for years, he said, so the extra $73,163 in annual money from the state "is going to be a bigger boost than we've had in years."
In Power, Konen is bracing himself for next year when this year's eighth-grade class moves on to the high school. With 25 students, it's the largest grade in the school, comprising one-sixth of the entire student population. The class behind it has eight students.
He estimates the overall loss to the elementary school next year will be $50,000.
Konen's vocal worries vanished as he led visitors through his school, stopping in classrooms to talk with students about their work. He noted that Carla Pfeifle, who teaches ninth-grade accelerated math, was a finalist as Montana Teacher of the Year this year.
He bent over a long table, where 14-year-old Shawn Ramble struggled to graph quadrants using his left hand, his purple-casted right hand the victim of a basketball mishap. "We're asking our teachers to spend more and more and more time on things, and not coming up with more compensation for them," he said after discussing Ramble's assignment with him.
The education groups that formed the Montana Quality Education Coalition will meet in January to decide how to follow up on the Legislature's action. The new school-funding plan came in response to a state Supreme Court decision that found Montana's public schools "constitutionally deficient."
The coalition had sought at least $100 million in annual spending on schools, and members said they're considering taking the state back to court. Ferriter said that, at least in Canyon Creek, the extra money "is not going to cut the mustard for us. It's not nearly enough to make the changes we need to make, in my opinion. ... The problem is still there, in black and white."
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