Canyon School gets one-year reprieve

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Canyon Elementary will remain open for another year, but its future beyond the 2010-11 school year is grim.

The Columbia Falls school board voted Monday to keep the school in Hungry Horse open for at least one more year, with a smaller staff and some combined classrooms.

The school likely will close the following year.

The plan calls for eliminating the half-time principal position, part-time custodial and counseling jobs, 1 1/2 teaching positions and one para-educator’s job, District Clerk Dustin Zuffelato said Tuesday.

A head teacher will oversee the school’s administrative needs, and instead of six grades with six teachers, some grades will be combined. Kindergarten, first and fifth grades would have individual classrooms; the school likely would have a combined second- and third-grade class and a third- and fourth-grade class.

Class sizes are expected to range from 15 to 22 students, which meets state accreditation standards.

“It would probably be a better situation than most schools have of that size in Montana,” Superintendent Michael Nicosia said.

The trimmed staff is necessary because of the $540,000 budget shortfall Columbia Falls schools face in 2010-11.

One cost-saving measure proposed earlier this year was closing Canyon Elementary next fall, a move officials estimated would save the district about $900,000.

That would have eliminated the elementary district’s $315,000 shortfall and would have allowed the district to ease demands on future budgets by stockpiling necessary supplies, including textbooks and technology.

But Canyon Elementary staffers and community members opposed the closure, despite its potential savings. Many people spoke against the proposal at a community meeting at the school in January.

Trustee Larry Wilson acknowledged Monday that the community’s reaction to the closure played a role in keeping Canyon Elementary open through 2010-11.

“It was not an easy conclusion for me to come to, to keep it open another year,” he said. “We would be better able to prepare ourselves [for future budget shortfalls] if we closed it now, but it just seemed like too much of a blow to put on the Canyon.”

Canyon Elementary is the last of several of the district’s schools outside Columbia Falls. Over the years, the district has closed or consolidated schools in Coram, Martin City, Lake Five, Apgar, Nyack, Paola and Summit.

There is still a chance that Canyon Elementary could stay open after next year, but it would require a significant influx of funding, board members said Monday.

“We need help at the state legislative level,” trustee Barbara Riley said. “It’s not coming from the federal level either.”

School funding from the state is largely determined by enrollment. Columbia Falls’ enrollment has declined by 11 percent over the last decade. Canyon Elementary’s enrollment dropped from 214 in 1996 to 93 this year, representing a loss of about $563,500 to the district.

Wilson suggested the people who urged the school district to keep Canyon open should direct their efforts toward legislators rather than the school board.

“The people they need to lobby are not us,” he said.

The staff cuts trustees approved on Monday will save the district about $200,000 — nearly two-thirds of the shortfall the Columbia Falls elementary district anticipates next year.

The rest of the shortfall will be made up through reduced staff elsewhere in the elementary district, which includes Glacier Gateway and Ruder elementary schools and Columbia Falls Junior High.

Nearly all the staff reductions in the elementary district, with the possible exception of one para-educator position, will take place without laying off anyone, Zuffelato said.

“With the retirements and some of the adjustments we’ve made, there won’t be any actual layoffs. It will be through attrition, all these reductions,” he said. “Dr. Nicosia has really worked hard to get everything lined out” to avoid layoffs.

The district may have to lay off one or two people at the high school, which faces a $225,000 deficit in 2010-11, Zuffelato said.

There’s still a chance that some teachers might choose to retire at the end of the school year. To help prevent layoffs and make up the deficit, the district is offering an early retirement option, Zuffelato said.

Teachers who are at least 61 and not yet eligible for Medicare and who have taught a minimum of 15 years in the district may get up to two extra years of health insurance coverage if they retire at the end of this year, he said. The district already covers two years of health insurance after retirement; the early retirement incentive is meant to “bridge the gap to Medicare.”

So far, only two teachers — one at the elementary level and one from the high school — have taken the early retirement option, Zuffelato said.

The Northwest Montana News Network contributed to this story.

Reporter Kristi Albertson may be reached at 758-4438 or by e-mail at kalbertson@dailyinterlake.com.

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