The largest school district in Montana plans to cut 40 full time positions to make up for an over $4 million budget deficit.
Over 100 Billings community members spoke at the school board meeting Jan. 27 to vehemently oppose reductions in library, gifted and talented, elementary interventionists and music programs.
"Thank you again for your time and your dedication to our kids. Not to be overly melodramatic but I hope we are all aware that largely the economic future of Montana really does depend on decisions made within these walls," Andrea Fuller said.
"My son was a Quest kid. He was one of those socially awkward ones. That program saved him. Thank you for your time," Gavin Wolcher said.
Fuller and Wolcher joined the many parents, students and community members who addressed the board of trustees and Superintendent Greg Upham in a comment period that lasted over an hour.
Upham says the school board meeting on Monday was a listening session for the board and trustees.
"It’s the democratic process in play. You know it’s listening to public comment, to the concerns by the individuals or groups in the areas that have been identified for reduction. And maybe we learn some things and pick some things up," Upham said.
Music and the Quest gifted and talented program were the main focus of many people’s public comment. But Billings Public School District administrators are also recommending cuts aimed at reading and math intervention programs, library programs, general education, support staff and administrative positions.
Students as young as fourth grade spoke in defense of the Quest and music programs.
"It’s not just about the academics which is a big part of it, it’s also about the emotions. It wasn’t just learning, we were all connected. The classroom was one big family," Kate Sparks said.
"It’s helped me so much during hard times and also during the goodest times. That’s not a word," Kristine Core said.
"In the third grade I didn’t have very many friends. I was in the principal's office a lot because of the fights I would have when People would tease me. When I was in Quest everyone understood me, no one bullied me and I didn’t feel like the outlyer anymore," James Spurlin said.
Sparks, Spurlin and Core are all middle school students. Spurlin emailed his fellow Quest students to let them know about the proposed cuts and encourage them to come speak at the meeting.
Spurlin’s sister Alicia spoke in support of the 5th grade band and orchestra program she says she's been looking forward to for years.
"Cutting the music program made me really sad. I’m in fourth grade and I really want the chance to be able to pick my own instrument and learn all the notes because learning notes isn’t just... it’s like a new language," Alicia said.
"The meeting made me feel frustrated, but it feels good to know that you can speak and fight for what’s right in the community and help future generations I guess," said Allana Bell, one of Spurlin's Quest classmates.
Courtney Hicks, a high school senior, had a stark view of the cuts and the public comment of young students.
"It’s very cute to watch younger children come and campaign for their education but that’s heartbreaking to watch these young children be fearful for their education," Hicks said.
Senior at Billings Senior High School Emily Tschetter started playing the cello in 5th grade orchestra class, one of the programs to be cut. Tschetter spoke with YPR News at a coffee shop a few days before she gave public comment during the school board meeting.
"Just from what I’ve researched about it, it seems that a lot of the orchestra students or kids who do music early in their school careers are a lot more successful going on. Like I don’t think I’d be where I’m at taking five AP classes and in the running for honors scholarships at U of M if it weren’t for the orchestra program," Tschetter said.
While most spoke solely in opposition to the cuts, some, like Stacy Panell, said there are opportunities to improve the programs while working within the cuts.
"I would like to propose people to be creative and so far the music educators here in town have come together. They've unified. They’ve really been quite strategic in getting a head of this. So if you haven’t heard some of their ideas, they’re fantastic," Panell said.
One idea from music teachers involves making 6th grade music an everyday class, which would result in 50 more instruction hours than the current music program.
Ultimately the board of trustees and community members say they will look to the state legislature to make changes to public school funding.
"They’re painful cuts and it’s because we don’t have the financial support from the state legislature to educate our students as we want to educate them," Chairwoman Dr. Greta Moen said.
The majority of reductions are slated to take place during the next school year. Superintendent Upham said a more finalized version of the proposed cuts will be released mid-February.