Existing staffing quotas for librarians, consultants, and administrators will remain unchanged following a tremendous spate of public comment to the Montana Board of Public Education.
Public Instruction Superintendent Elsie Arntzen recommended removing state-mandated quotas for these positions to emphasize local control through accreditation standards, raising concern among many educational stakeholders.
More than 1,200 public comments were submitted urging the board to maintain the current ratios for advisors. Another 1,000 wrote in support of staff relations for school librarians, and about 200 public comments were made on principals and superintendents.
“We have set up guard rails to guide schools,” said board member Anne Keith. “I think the ratios are guard rails that I don’t want to give up as there is a process of deviation from standards that you can follow to show your local control can go beyond those minimums.”
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Throughout the public comment process, many experts and community members expressed concerns that removing staffing quotas entirely would allow school boards to cut those positions when their budgets run tight.
Deputy Superintendent Sharyl Allen disagreed that school boards “would start cutting people right away,” arguing that the quotas would only hurt smaller, more rural schools.
Board member Tammy Lacey offered a different perspective.
About six years ago, while Lacey was superintendent at Great Falls Public Schools, the district had to cut $1.8 million from its budget. As a result, prevention specialists, student support advocates, intervention teachers, and several arts, medical careers, and environmental education programs all received the axe.
“It wasn’t fun and it was hard work figuring out what to cut,” Lacey said.
She went on to say that if Arntzen’s recommendations went through, superintendents would have been added to that list of potential cuts. In addition, librarians, consultants and school administrators would be at risk without staff.
“And so it’s going to happen because we don’t have enough resources and you cut and remove what you don’t need to have,” she continued.
Despite the support of many board members, not all are convinced that mandatory staffing quotas are the correct approach for the board to set minimum standards for Montana’s schools.
Board member Jane Lee Hamman said these discussions were among the most frustrating of her tenure on the board, and maintained her position in favor of more flexibility for schools while providing guidance.
“I’m very frustrated that I think the small rural schools are being weighed down by so many rules and certain requirements that we need to take a closer look at what we’re doing,” Hamman said.
The board did not have enough time to respond to all the comments submitted and still had about 19 sections to work through, including accreditation rules related to professional development, degree requirements and distance learning. The remaining comments will be considered at a meeting in January.