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January 6, 2003

MSDB chief appeals to Legislature

From: Great Falls Tribune, MT - 06 Jan 2003

Gettel warns cuts would lead to staff layoffs, hurt education

Tribune Staff Writer
Montana School for the Deaf and the Blind Superintendent Steve Gettel is concerned about the impact that proposed spending cuts and salary freezes would have on the Great Falls-based state program.

In a letter to legislators and an interview, Gettel asked state lawmakers to think of MSDB as "your statewide school district."

The school has 74 hearing-impaired or visually impaired students from around the state. Most of them live in cottages on the MSDB campus. Its five outreach consultants provide help that allows another 255 students to remain in their home districts scattered around the state.

As a small state agency with little teacher turnover and attendants who supervise students living in cottages around the clock, MSDB "could not come close to meeting" the vacancy savings reductions of 4 percent recommended in the governor's budget, Gettel said.

Bigger state departments can achieve such vacancy savings by eliminating positions as they become vacant, he said, but MSDB would have to lay off teachers, reducing the quality of education.

Instead, Gettel asked the Legislature to reduce the vacancy savings for the school from 4 percent to 1 percent.

Gettel also is distressed about the governor's proposed cuts in the school's operating budget totaling $118,000 in fiscal year 2004 and $100,000 in fiscal year 2005. Most of those cuts -- $89,198 the first year and $71,198 the second -- would come out of MSDB's education program, he said.

MSDB already was cut more than $40,000 earlier this year during spending cuts, about 1.3 percent of its budget, Gettel said. That was quite a bit more than public schools were cut, he added.

If the proposed $218,000 cut stands, he said, it would mean MSDB:

# Could not replace any of its aging computers.

# Would have to drastically cut subscriptions and book purchases for its library.

# Could not replace math and reading textbooks. Their scheduled replacement was delayed by previous state cuts.

# Would have to tighten greatly the purchase of educational materials for classrooms.

If the Legislature can't soften the budget cuts, Gettel said, children in the classroom won't get as good an education.

Gettel also expressed concern that the governor's budget calls for a salary freeze for state employees, including MSDB's teachers and other staff members.

MSDB must compete to hire teachers with Montana's Class AA schools, he said, but pays $7,000 a year less on average than those larger Montana public schools. And most of those school districts are offering teachers 8 to 11 percent increases over the next two years when MSDB salaries would be frozen, he added.

The comparison is relevant, Gettel said, because MSDB's teachers live and work in Great Falls. And only four large school districts -- Billings, Bozeman, Missoula and Great Falls -- employ teachers trained to educate students with hearing or visual impairments.

MSDB teacher salaries have been trailing those of public school teachers increasingly since the early 1980s, Gettel said.

"This deplorable situation will only become worse if no attempt is made during this session to provide funds for an adjustment," he said.

Gettel said he recognizes the state's projected revenue shortfall, "but it seems there never has been a good time to do what is right for MSDB teachers and remedy this inequity."

"Remember, these hard-working and caring professionals are your teachers, too," Gettel stressed to the lawmakers.

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