Panel focuses on class size, funding woes

That Montana’s education system is in crisis was the consensus of a group of about 150 local
educators, parents and politicians who met Wednesday night at the College of Technology in

By SUZANNE COLONNA for the Missoulian

"It makes me angry," Marilyn Ryan, a Hellgate High School teacher, said at the Stand Up for
Education forum.

The forum was one of 10 community meetings being held across the state by the newly formed
nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition whose aim is to put the spotlight on school funding, as well as other
educational issues in Montana.

The coalition includes the Montana Parent Teacher Association, the Montana Education Association
and the Montana Federation of Teachers, the University of Montana Alumni Association and the
Montana State University Alumni Association.

Ryan, who teaches social studies at Hellgate, said that without adequate state funding, school
boards across the state have been forced to close neighborhood schools and cut programs.

Ryan was part of a panel of educators, administrators and one parent representative who spoke at
the community meeting. Joining Ryan on the panel were Roberta Evans, interim dean of the
University of Montana School of Education; Missoula County Public Schools board member Barb
Seekins; MCPS interim superintendent Larry Johnson; and Steve McArthur, a school volunteer and
parent of two children in the Missoula school system.

McArthur said he had high hopes for the education system in the state when he moved here two
years ago. However, he has seen his daughter’s class size swell in that time, from 23 to 28 students.

"If you can’t get class sizes lower than 28, one teacher has to be a miracle worker," McArthur said.

Seekins agreed that when state standards for classroom size are not met, it affects the quality of
education students receive. The school board is forced to make tougher decisions every year, she
said, because there isn’t enough state funding.

"We’re liable in a sense – we’re letting everyone down," she said.

Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss stressed the connection between economic
development in Montana and high-quality education.

Another concern voiced by the panel was the exodus of new teachers, who relocate to states that
pay higher salaries. Montana currently ranks 48th in the nation when it comes to teachers’ salaries.

Johnson said he recently attended a career fair for teachers in Spokane where school systems in
other states were offering as much as $10,000 more than Missoula, he said.

Of the 240 students who will graduate from UM with teaching certifications this year, many of them
will be more than $15,000 in debt, Evans said. For them, higher salaries are a pretty compelling
reason to leave the state.

To help counter that trend, Evans said, UM tries to foster relationships between soon-to-be teachers
and the school system in Montana. The hope, she said, is to keep the "best and brightest" in

Sheri Postma, who has lived in Missoula for 26 years and has a daughter attending UM, said she
hoped the forum would bring to light the need for more state funding.

"We’re here to listen, and we’re here to help," she said.

Paul Williamson, the dean of the College of Technology and facilitator of the forum, said the most
important way people can get involved is to continue to stay informed.

"The crisis is simply a crossroads," he said. "We do have options here in Montana. We built out
excellent schools and colleges by working together, and we must continue to do so in the future."

Future meetings of the Stand Up for Education coalition are scheduled in Havre, Kalispell, Glendive,
Billings and Great Falls.

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