Missoula School Board Adopts Controversial Curriculum Policy

The March 29th Missoula County Public Schools Board of Trustees meeting began at 6pm starting with The Pledge of Allegiance. Nine trustees were in attendance with Mike Gehl calling in via Zoom. Approximately 35 members of the community were present in the audience for the in-person meeting.

Public comment for non-agenda items began with a Big Sky High School student and her father explaining that school employees sexualized her by saying her clothing reminded them of a Playboy Bunny. School staff sent the student home for the day for a dress code violation.

Two parents spoke against the late start and release plan for High School. The parents said that it leaves afterschool activities such as work, sports, or extracurriculars to run late into the evening. Active students complained they do not have time for friends or family during the week, and end up missing more school.

Outgoing Superintendent, Rob Watson, then discussed reviewing new textbooks for the science curriculum, which had been on hold since they reviewed math curriculum text books prior to the start of the COVID pandemic. K-8 had already made their selections, and HS is expected to provide their selections in the coming weeks. Watson asked that members of the community to help by reviewing the curriculum at the district headquarters at 909 South Ave West, Building B between 7:30 am and 4:30 pm on weekdays. The final selections will be made in late April.

Next up was the controversial change to policy 2311, with two sentences being at the heart of the contention.

The previous wording is crossed out and the proposed changes are shown in bold: “Core instructional materials textbooks shall be selected by the Superintendent, or designee, and adopted by the Board prior to their use. The selection of other instructional materials is not subject to board approval.”

After no public comment and much board discussion, including concerns voiced by Jen Vogel, Mike Gehl and Koan Mercer, the board voted 8 to 1, with Vogel dissenting, to adopt the policy change with two friendly amendments. The amendments included adding the Montana State Law definition of textbook, which describes a textbook as a book or digital material used as a primary resource in the class, and to change the wording of the second sentence to read, “The selection of other instructional materials will not require board approval.” Policy 2313 is in place to challenge materials that may be considered offensive or controversial, although it is used after the fact.

Superintendent Watson also reviewed how $28 million of pandemic aid money from Federal ESSER I, II and III funds were used and how the remaining $15.2 million will be split in the coming years with $6.1 million for the 2022-2023 academic year, $6.1 million for 2023-24, and $3 million for 2024-25. The Federal funds must be spent by December 2024.

Watson said that the money will be going towards funding the Missoula Online Academy, which formed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic; K-8 academic interventions to address learning loss; behavior intervention and social workers in K-12 to address the surging mental health crisis; and art specialists, additional school nurses, cleaning supplies and air filters, and permanent substitute teachers.

Watson intends to fill the budget gap needed for extra staff and supplies with future, year-end surpluses that he said would not be needed for new textbooks. He also floated the idea of starting a budget committee who can find cost savings.

The lead testing for all MCPS schools was also discussed, the results of which can be found by clicking on the “Lead Testing Results” button at the bottom left of MCPSMT.org. MCPS has turned off faucets that tested high for lead and will change fixtures and retest. Any that still test high will need further mitigation as needed. Watson encouraged concerned parents to seek free lead testing from the Missoula City-County Health Department or speak to their own healthcare providers.

Pat McHugh, Executive Director of Business and Operations, talked about upcoming elections on May 3. There are 6 candidates running for 3 open Elementary Board of Trustees positions, and they will appear alphabetically on the ballot. There are also 2 candidates for each of the three open High School Trustee positions.

Other agenda items included ratifying out of district attendance agreements, levies, approving a grant application for the Adult Basic and Literacy Education (ABLE) program, and UM writing coaches for 8th graders. The board also approved the contract terms for Russ Lodge, the year-long Interim Superintendent set to start July 1. McHugh also gave an in-depth and lengthy presentation on the overall budget.

The meeting dragged into the end of its third hour with 3 fewer trustees and discussion of the bell schedules. Christina Stevens, Principal at Jeanette Rankin Elementary, rose to make public comment in favor of keeping the split release schedule in elementary.

The split release lets K-3 out earlier than 4-5. Stevens was given longer than the 3-minute limit on public comments to explain how the K-3 teachers need the extra planning and meeting time that the split release schedule allows, explaining that much of that time is lost walking the younger children to and from classes and busses. She also said that children are exhausted from the longer days.

Prolonged discussion ensued between Ms. Stevens and the Trustees with regard to the topic even though trustees generally cite that they are not permitted to interact with, answer, or ask questions of public commentors.

The next meeting will be on April 12 in the Board Room at 909 South Ave W in the Administration Building A.

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