AT A CROSSROADS

Gardiner School transitioning into the future
Wednesday, June 20, 2018
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Enterprise photos by Nate Howard

Gardiner Public School Superintendent Randy Russell stands outside the school June 13.

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The grizzly bear representing the school’s mascot, the Bruins, stands amidst a construction zone for the current roofing project at the entrance to the school June 13.

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Ashea Mills and her daughter Aria Tercek, 5, sit outsdie Gardiner School on June 13.

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Patricia Baltzley, chairwoman of the Gardiner School Board.

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The class of 2018 is recognized in the school lobby.

The Gardiner Public School is at a crossroads.

Consistently ranked among the best in the state, Gardiner has long been a diverse school, home to the children of Yellowstone National Park officials, world-renowned scientists and park guides.

The school provides a meeting place for the community of 875 people, hosting sporting events and community meetings. Elk and bison consistently graze - and help fertilize - the school’s football field. The national park’s border cuts through the west wing of the school. The famous Roosevelt Arch looms just south of the property.

“It’s really the heart of our community,” said County Commissioner Bill Berg, who has lived just north of town since the 1980s.

That unique atmosphere is one of the reasons that Ashea Mills and her husband Mike Tercek decided to have a child six years ago.

Mills, a park guide, and Tercek, a climate scientist, have lived in Gardiner for 13 years, after spending 23 years in the area. They fell in love with the community and the award-winning school.

“I don’t know if we would’ve chosen to have a child in other places,” Mills said.

But Gardiner isn’t the same as it was when Aria, their now-five-year-old daughter who is heading into first grade, was born.

In recent years, the school - as well as the community - has faced a number of issues: decreased funding, decreased students, an aging building and a lack of affordable housing.

This year alone, the school board had to cut 7.75 fulltime equivalent positions in order to balance its budget, though later added back .9 positions. Right now, the school’s roof is being repaired because it would drip into classrooms on rainy days or when the snow was melting.

“In the nearly six years she’s been alive, we’ve seen dramatic changes - and not for the good - in both the community and the school,” Mills said.

‘Ground zero’ of changes

Mills said her house on Main Street is ground zero of the changes that have come to Gardiner.

“The neighborhood we bought a house in is now a commercial district. It’s almost completely vacation rentals. There are 30 in sight of my house,” Mills said. “Families don’t live here any more. There’s one family left within arm’s reach. There are all these noise and safety issues.

“Those issues have, of course, affected our school.”

The school’s enrollment has been dropping, largely because families can’t afford to live in and around Gardiner because of skyrocketing home prices.

For example, three years ago, the high school had 85 students. Next year, enrollment will be 58.

The school, which is compensated per capita for each student, faces a problem.

More than anyone, Gardiner Public School Superintendent Randy Russell understands the housing crisis the town is going through.

Russell, the district’s highest paid employee, can’t find a place to live. This school year, he found an apartment to rent with his wife and daughter who graduated from high school in May. But he quickly found out it wasn’t financially sustainable.

“I lucked out and found a place, but it’s just not affordable, even for me and the position that I have,” Russell said. “I stepped out of it, and now I can’t find a place. I was shown one, but it’s very expensive for an extremely run down place. It’s like a college apartment. I’m not gonna pay for it.”

This week, he moved into a canvas tent about five miles north of the school.

“I’m not going to be roughing it per se, but it’s not the most ideal situation,” Russell said.

Russell, who owns a ranch in Shields Valley about 75 miles north of Gardiner, said he hopes to find a place to rent - even a one-bedroom apartment for him and his wife to share - once the tourist season winds down for winter.

Russell said he understands why housing has become such a hot commodity.

“We’re a tourist destination. People have the ability to do vacation rentals by owner. It’s completely understandable. It’s their livelihood,” he said. “But it prices me out of the market.”

Year of cuts

In spring of 2017, the school board was informed by the former superintendent that the district would be facing a major issue: A $400,000 budget shortfall.

The financial gap was a confluence of a number of yearslong factors.

The funding issue started in 2014, when the National Park Service told Gardiner that it would no longer be paying the district to educate students from Mammoth Hot Springs because of a 1976 law that it realized had never been enforced.

That meant an immediate cut of about $600,000 from the school district’s annual $2.5 million budget.

Mammoth Hot Springs, the home of many Yellowstone National Park employees and their families, is located in Wyoming, so after many meetings and discussions, the state said it would pick up the tab for these students.

This still put pressure on the Gardiner School District because essentially the school district had been legally double-dipping on funding for the students, receiving money from the National Park Service and Montana. Technically, the money from the National Park Service was not per student, but a flat fee, so Montana had still been paying the district a per capita fee for the students from Mammoth. When Wyoming announced it would be paying per capita for these students, Montana said it would no longer pay a per capita fee for the Wyoming students.

Combined with a dropping enrollment, this meant even fewer dollars for the district.

So when the school board went to the drawing board to figure out what to do next, it wasn’t left with much of a choice.

“When your general fund is 97 percent paying personnel salaries, there’s only one place to cut and that’s personnel,” said Patricia Baltzley, chairwoman of the Gardiner School Board.

Among the cuts:

• The industrial technology teacher position was not filled.

• A full-time front office staff position was not filled.

• Three para-educational aide positions were eliminated.

• The physical education teacher position was reduced from full-time to .25 full-time equivalent.

• Math, science, English and social studies teachers will now be required to teach grades 7-12.

• Summer pay was eliminated for the FFA and technology coordinator positions.

• Multiple positions were shuffled to reallocate funding models.

A new answer

When the school board was forced to make these decisions, one of Mills’ friends, another Gardiner parent, asked why the school didn’t have a parent-teacher organization.

“I realized, before we frankly didn’t need one,” Mills said.

But this year was a turning point. With every position that was cut, that meant another family, more students, leaving Gardiner because there aren’t other places for teachers to work, Mills said.

Over the course of the school year, the school board had many public input sessions and planned out its priorities.

While Mills praised the school board - her husband is a member - she said she realized there was a need for more, so she founded a new nonprofit: The North Yellowstone Education Foundation.

“I’m not one to sit idly by. This threatens our lifestyle in impactful ways,”Mills said. “We can’t just pick up and do our work elsewhere. We can’t just move to Minnesota and do this. In order to try and shore up our school, I started this nonprofit.”

The foundation, which was approved by the Internal Revenue Service in March, will help secure grants for the school, provide more funding and support.

For Mills, the decision to make the nonprofit was easy. The Gardiner School is too special to go unprotected. The work of the people that live in the area is too important for them to not have a school to send their children to.

“This is not just another average rural school in Montana. We support the infrastructure of the most prized ecosystem in the country,” Mills said. “If you care about grizzly bears, if you care about wolves, if you care about large tracts of habitat, if you care about historic preservation, if you care about Yellowstone, then you need to support our school.”

Already, the nonprofit has received a $48,000 grant to help students get outside on field trips, something the district has had to cut back on. It also secured funding for a paraeducational teacher position, reducing the impact. It’s also coordinated volunteers and planned a fundraiser for the school for July.

Mills said now is the time for these changes to be implemented.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to have this conversation in five years because of how many families we’ve lost and will lose,” Mills said.

Phase 2

Today, the budget is balanced. The non-profit is already firing on all cylinders. The school district is still making some tough decisions but the major cuts are in the past.

Baltzley can’t help but look toward the future.

“Now that the dust is settling, we face the question: ‘What are we gonna become? What’s our next evolution? What’s our next phase of what we’re trying to do at the school?” Baltzley said. “It doesn’t mean Gardiner School is dying. It means that Gardiner School is changing. Shame on us if we don’t do something positive with it.”

Baltzley said the school board meetings will now enter a “phase two” where the board will work to decide what programs the district should prioritize and what educational decisions are best for future students.

Another part of the next phase might be doing something about housing, Baltzley said.

Russell isn’t the only employee likely to have issues with finding a place to live. Well over half the staff has more than 10 years in the district, Russell said.

“Housing is going to be a huge struggle for us in three years,” Russell said. “We have a very senior staff of people. Some of those jobs we’re going to have to replace. It’s going to be near impossible to find a teacher, especially a new teacher.”

The starting salary is $34,000. A 2015 Housing Action Plan made by HRDC found that the average sale price of a home in Gardiner in 2014 was $313,266. The plan found a household needs an annual income of $61,844 to afford that.

The situation has only gotten worse since then.

For example, a two-bedroom, one bathroom prefabricated house - one that is driven down the interstate in parts - is for sale for $375,000.

“$34,000 to come into Gardiner and live is not going to be very affordable for new teachers,” Russell said.

The district owns a property next to the school, which it has considered developing into housing in the past. In 2012, the district developed architectural renderings for townhouses.

Those discussions will likely be reignited, Baltzley said.

“We’re looking into the future, so that we are taking advantage of our situation,” Baltzley said. “Now everyone needs to look at our situation, and we need to say, with the staff we have, what’s the best we can do for our students? It’s gonna take this year to do that.”

Mills also expressed optimism but said something needs to be done to address Gardiner’s other issues - particularly housing - in order for the school to be successful.

“If we don’t have kids to teach and don’t have teachers to teach them, it’s all for naught,” Mills said.