By Jerome Tharaud
For the second time in less than a year, the Havre school board has denied the request of the East End Colony for a publicly funded attendance center for its 16 children.
"It's going to cost District 16 taxpayers more money and going to cause us to drop services in this district," school board chair Jim Heberly said before the vote Tuesday night.
On Feb. 27, Joe Waldner, the administrator of East End Colony School, faxed a petition to Havre Public Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller with the signatures of the 16 students and their parents requesting the board to authorize a "separate or attendance school of Havre Public Schools."
The next day Miller sent a letter to Waldner saying the board would consider the request for an attendance center on March 11. A separate school was not considered, the letter said, because the board denied a similar request made by the colony last November.
School district policy requires six months to elapse before the board can take up an identical item on its agenda. The last time the board denied a request for an attendance center at the colony was last July.
After a lengthy back-and-forth debate Tuesday night between board members and the two men speaking on behalf of the colony, the trustees voted 5-0 against the center. Board member Dave Milam was absent and member Joe Marino was temporarily absent.
Waldner said today he was disappointed with the decision. "No, I'm not satisfied. I feel after 30 years of being turned down, it's time they should look at it the other way.
"It's always been a funding issue with Havre. It's never been an education issue," he said.
At the beginning of the discussion, Miller recommended that the board deny the request for a variety of reasons, including concerns that a colony school would not meet accreditation standards and the cost of the center.
"We would still be in a deficit mode in year two of the opening of the attendance center," Miller told the board. "We would be taking on a new situation that makes up approximately $75,000 in new expenses."
This would either require an increase in the local mill levy or a reduction in staff and programs at other elementary schools, he said.
Miller also said that after an enrollment decline of 83 students in Havre elementary schools this year, there's plenty of room for the 16 East End students in Havre.
Accreditation standards would also require the district to hire additional staff to provide special services like a library and counseling services, Miller wrote in his recommendation to the board.
"I am not convinced the colony will allow the district to guarantee the quality of educational opportunities for each child at the attendance center," he wrote.
A small retinue of Hutterites attended the meeting, but Waldner and Don Byrd, a one-time teacher at the colony and former Havre school board member, were the only ones who spoke on behalf of the request. Byrd said he had been asked by Waldner to address the board.
After Byrd's speech, a strained but civil dialogue ensued between board members and Waldner and Byrd.
"Between 1979 and 2001, the East End Colony has paid $774,304 in property taxes to Hill County," Byrd said. "Not one cent went toward educating colony children."
Board member Kathie Newell said the Hutterites had chosen not to take advantage of the education their tax dollars purchase. "We have repeatedly told them we have the facilities, we have the staff, and we would be proud to teach their kids," she said.
Byrd told the board that 38 of the 40 Montana school districts with Hutterite colonies had allowed the colonies to establish schools under the school district umbrella. He gave the examples of Chester and Shelby.
"When they established those schools out there, it helped them. I cannot understand why there are 38 districts that are doing this, and two that are not," Byrd said.
Miller later disputed Byrd's figures, telling the board that 31 percent of Montana Hutterite colonies either send their kids to already operating district schools or operate private schools like the East End Colony school.
Miller also told the board that small school districts like Chester and Grass Range have taken in Hutterite schools in the past because the districts were able to double their size and get more education funding as a result of the increase in students.
"The only way they can maintain their money is taking in these attendence centers," Heberly said. "If you were in a position of survival, I can see why you would do it. We're not in a position of survival."
Byrd refuted the argument made by Miller and some board members that a colony school would not meet the stricter standards of No Child Left Behind, the federal school policy going into effect this year that measures schools' progress based on standardized tests.
The colony is willing to cooperate fully with the accreditation standards, Byrd said. "Under your jurisdiction they would have new higher accreditation standards."
As it is, he said, colony students "are not getting the quality of education that your students are getting here."
"I think it's really about justice," Byrd said. "If we have a law that says that no child should be left behind, I don't think those children should be left behind."
An attendance center is similar to a school but would receive less district funding.