Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Heart Butte Schools superintendent says budget fixes are on track

A small school on the Blackfeet Reservation terminated more than 30 employees earlier this year. Heart Butte School had racked up more than $1 million in debt amid accusations of financial mismanagement by a former superintendent. Board members voted last month to hire former Billings Public Schools leader Greg Upham as Heart Butte's new interim superintendent to help stabilize the school. He spoke with Montana Public Radio's Austin Amestoy.

Austin Amestoy: When we last covered Heart Butte on MTPR's newscasts, the story at the time was really that big wave of emergency layoffs and a pretty big fiscal hole the district had to dig itself out of. Now, that was a little more than a month ago, we last updated listeners. So I wanted to ask, you know, how much has changed at Heart Butte over the last couple of months?

Greg Upham: Well, a lot. You know, it was very evident when I came into this situation that, number one, I had to stabilize the school day because the cuts had cut deep into, you know, there was not a superintendent, there's not a principal, there's not a secretary to support those offices. And so, that was number one. And then obviously, number two was to dive into the budget and begin the work of finding all the things that needed to be found to make sure that we could basically pay our bills.

Austin Amestoy: A spokesperson for the state superintendent's office, Brian O'Leary, told me the Office of Public Instruction helped Heart Butte tap into some unspent COVID-19 school relief funding. Superintendent, how much did Heart Butte receive?

Greg Upham: You know, it's right in that $700,000 range. We still have more available to us. And, you know, there are three areas of the budget that I'm intently focused on. One is to recoup all of our reimbursable funds that are available to us. And number two is a significant controlled spend. So nothing is being allowed to be purchased without my authorization. And then the other component of making the district financially solvent was the reduction in force. The FTE that were reduced. And that's that has made a significant impact.

Austin Amestoy: Certainly a steep budgetary position to be recovering from in those three areas you talked about. You know, a couple of those can have some pretty direct and specific impacts on the school community. That's a pretty tough recipe for a learning environment and a teaching environment, I feel. So I wanted to ask if the community in the school have been receptive to your leadership and your ideas so far?

Greg Upham: Yeah, to this point, absolutely. I think everybody was so concerned about the school closing that, you know, they pulled together in that manner and said, you know, worst case scenario is not acceptable. And when I say controlled spend, I'm still allowing for spends that allow the school to operate as a school, right? I mean you still have to pay for your heat, you still have to pay for your lights, you still have supplies. But anything past that right now is not okay.

Austin Amestoy: How is morale among students and staff right now?

Greg Upham: You know, it's interesting, Austin, when I first came here, I did an assembly with our high school students. And I said, very simple. I introduced myself and I said very simply, I'm not here to close your school. And you should have seen the shoulders. Just the stress just drop. You know, Heart Butte Public Schools is open for business and will be open for business in the '24-25 school year. And I'm confident that the budget will be in order.

Austin Amestoy: Once again, Heart Butte School Interim Superintendent Greg Upham on the school's ongoing financial recovery efforts. Superintendent, thank you for your time.

Greg Upham: Yes, thank you, Austin

Austin graduated from the University of Montana’s journalism program in May 2022. He came to MTPR as an evening newscast intern that summer, and jumped at the chance to join full-time as the station’s morning voice in Fall 2022.

He is best reached by emailing
Become a sustaining member for as low as $5/month
Make an annual or one-time donation to support MTPR
Pay an existing pledge or update your payment information