Budget cuts at Park leave a lot of questions

“An attack on public education is an attack on democracy.” This quote, said by Diane Ravitch, the former United States Secretary of Education, is exceptionally topical in the current education system. Every day there are news programs, articles, and even social media posts villainizing American public schools as a whole. Parents are pulling their children out of the public school system and opting for alternative routes such as homeschooling and private schooling. Over the past few years, over one million students were taken out of public schools in America according to chalkbeat.org. This is the largest decline since WWII.

The Livingston school district is experiencing the same thing, “Over the last 5-7 years, we’ve seen a decrease in over 100 kids in the high school district, and 180 in the elementary district,” states financial director, Josh Viegut. As more families are leaving the public education system, this has caused a decrease in funding and a subsequent decrease in course offerings in public  schools all across the country. Livingston, Montana is not immune to these effects as our school district has had to make serious and heartbreaking cuts in order to remedy the one-million-dollar deficit. According to Park High School principal, Lori Dust, there is more to the budget cuts  than simply being a result of financial hardship. “What happened here is a symptom of a bigger problem. The  problem is that there has been an assault on public education,” Dust explains.

The attack on public education has been going on for decades; however, recent events have streamlined the efforts to reduce funding for public schools and move kids into different educational establishments. The COVID pandemic brought an increase in funds for the school district; however, it also took away a lot of students. As the COVID money is no longer coming in, the diverse course and program offerings are not as plentiful for the students remaining. The administration at Park High School was aware of this and has been preparing  for these budget cuts for the last few years. In the last two years, four retiring teachers’ positions have not been filled. These include history teacher Bill Shannon, science teacher Randy Mogen, English teacher Lynnette Evenson, and most recently, mathematics teacher John Gannon. This decision is a direct result of a decrease in enrollment and leaves each of the core subjects with only three teachers.

Additionally, in order to come up with the $200,000 that Park is tasked with cutting , the Family and Consumer Science (FCS) department and the online course offerings through the Park Online Education Program will be cut. Dust is adamant that these cuts are going to be “as temporary as we can make them,” and as soon as enrollment numbers are up, these programs will be reinstated in the high school. Within the district, Washington School will be closed to save money as well, “Approximately $150-180k will be saved from closing Washington, but it is mostly staff salaries,” says Viegut.

Park High is not the only school in Montana that is feeling these effects, and as someone who believes wholeheartedly in public education, Dust is devastated by this. “This country was built on public schools,” Dust states. “We need to question why the state government is okay with this assault on public education. Why is OPI funding other institutions and taking kids away from our public school?” Dust suspects that there are personal and human aspects to this situation that overpower the financial aspect. Defunding public schools creates a further divide between the haves and the have-nots. As Dust put it, the haves can choose a different private or alternative school if they have a perception that their public schools are not good enough. The have-nots, however, do not have any other options when it comes to their schooling. When the students who are able to leave do so on false pretenses, this worsens the educational situation for the kids who rely on public schools to receive schooling and guidance. Dust went on to share that with the current narrative surrounding public education, the program and staff cuts were almost inevitable. “When you start taking public money from the public school, this is what is going to happen,” she states.

The majority of the media as well as private schools across the country are openly suggesting that public schools do not provide the same level of education as private schools and even homeschooling can provide. This is seen on the news, and some private school students share this opinion. Kealan, a 20-year-old student from Texas who has been enrolled in private schools his whole life says,  “I think that it’s kind of just a fact, private school is better. Obviously sometimes it depends on the situation and there are some incredible public schools, but by and large private school is the better way to go.”

Dust believes that the disparagement of public schools is part of a propaganda war targeted at reducing funding and worsening public education. Videos of public-school teachers on strike,  statistics comparing test scores, and stories of parent protests all act to taint the image of public schools in the public’s eye. This instills concern in parents and causes them to consider alternative schooling, which hurts the school as a whole. Although this is not an easy fight to take on, Lori Dust keeps the individuals at Park High School in her heart as she shares, “There is a propaganda war against us, but I don’t care. I am ready to fight.”

Park High Principal Lori Dust talks in her office recently.