Facing a projected budget shortfall by June 30, 2020, the Choteau school board is considering offering a retirement incentive to Choteau’s most experienced teachers in hopes of reducing the K-12 system’s salary costs for the next school year.

Superintendent Chuck Gameon asked the board at its Nov. 12 meeting to give him direction on whether to offer up to three full-time teachers with 20-plus years of experience a retirement incentive package that would include a $20,000 lump sum payment.

He said the K-12 system has nine teachers who meet this criteria.

The board took the proposed incentive under advisement and will put it on the agenda for action at the board’s Dec. 10 meeting.

In October, Gameon warned the school board that expenses are coming in higher than budgeted and could cause the elementary and high school general fund budgets to end the fiscal year next June about $98,000 in the red.

Part-time rural Choteau residents Gordon and Jill Dyal, who operate Dyal Partners LP/Dyal Co. LLC, a mergers and acquisitions advisory firm based in New York, in October pledged cash donations of $157,500 over three years that can be used to help offset about 70% of the projected deficits, but the school board still needs to address the remaining 30%.

Answering a question from board member Joe Haas, Gameon said the purpose of a retirement incentive is to encourage highly experienced teachers to retire, allowing the district to replace them with less experienced teachers who would earn less on the salary schedule.

The superintendent said that several years ago, the school system offered a retirement incentive with an $18,000 lump sum for teaches with at least 20 years of experience and none of the eligible teachers took it though one teacher did take a different option to go half time.

This proposed incentive would offer a lump sum payment of $20,000 that could be given in two different ways: one as a lump sum that would be subject to all applicable state and federal tax withholdings but would not be considered part of Teachers Retirement System several/rollover pay.

The other option would be to have the $20,000 placed in the school districts’ retirement/Cobra insurance fund for the sole purpose of paying the retired employee’s health insurance premium until this amount is expended. This option would not be subject to state or federal taxes.

Haas asked whether the retirement incentive was part of a larger plan to deal with the shortfall. He said he thinks the board needs to look at a many different factors tied to the shortfall to respond to it.

Board Chairman Lane Yeager said, “Everything is on the table.”

Gameon said there will have to be more options considered because no teachers may take the incentive.

Board member Mark Henderson said the elementary and high school system’s largest single expense is salaries, wages and benefits. He said offering an incentive package to teachers a few years away from retirement is one way of reducing costs without layoffs (also called a reduction in force or RIF).

He said the school system is not at the point of looking at a RIF now, but if expenses continue to climb, outstripping revenue, the system would have to look at savings through attrition first and then possibly a RIF.

Yeager said the retirement of three experienced teachers would be huge financially for the district.

Business manager Patty Mellinger said funding for the retirement incentive lump sum payments and other associated costs would come from the system’s flex, retirement and general funds.

The board agreed to direct Gameon to bring the retirement incentive proposal to the December board meeting for action. Before then, Mellinger said she would meet with Yeager, Gameon and Haas to provide them all with information on the school budget and the genesis of the shortfall.

Gameon said that if the board goes forward with the package, it should be offered by Jan. 1, so the district can advertise for new teachers by March 1.

In his report to the board, Gameon said that all of the K-6 staff, including teachers and aides have been trained to use the Pax Good Behavior program. The Teton County Health Department came and did baseline behavior measuring that will be used to determine whether the Pax program yields positive results. Teachers have written the reports they needed to at the start of the program as well, he said.

The school district received an $8,500 grant from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services to cover the $500 per teacher training cost for the behavior modification and resiliency building program.

Gameon also said the school system is dealing with a sudden loss of activity bus drivers. Longtime driver Russ Moorhouse has resigned; existing drivers Jon Stoltz and Dave Chalfon were unavailable for Nov. 13-16, when Choteau would need the volleyball team, the pep band and the FFA chapter taken to Bozeman for different events.

Gameon said Josh Ewing, a Power bus driver, will serve as a substitute driver to take the band to the state volleyball tournament. Matt Passmore, son of the district’s route bus contractor, Gary Passmore, will take the volleyball team. The FFA chapter members would ride in a school vehicle with adviser Milford Wearley and on the pep band bus. He arranged for the FFA members to ride home on a Fairfield bus.

Gameon said he has three other drivers who are working through the process and will be ready in a few weeks. “I feel good about the future,” he said.

The board approved both Ewing and Passmore as substitute activity bus drivers. (Board member Marion Passmore, who is married to Matt Passmore, abstained from voting on this item.)

He reported that the “Smiles Across Montana” program provided dental care to 60 children during a three-day visit to the school. The nonprofit program that offers it services for free will be back in February. Members of the group also met with Choteau dentist Luke Allen before they left town. “I’d say it was a huge success,” Gameon said.

In her report to the board, Principal Wendi Hammond, who oversees junior high and high school students, said her staff has taken new suicide prevention training.

She reported that the district volleyball tournament that Choteau hosted as very successful financially. The gate generated $6,200 in receipts, enough to cover the district’s expenses and provide each school with a check to cover its travel expenses.

Dutton/Brady High School has accepted Choteau’s invitation to do a cooperative spring prom in Choteau, she said, and the CHS juniors, who organize the dance, are still waiting to hear from Power High School.

In other extracurricular matters, Hammond said the Montana High School Association plans to implement a girls high school wrestling program in the next couple of years. When this happens, there will be both boys and girls competing at meets with separate brackets, she said. The move is designed to help Montana high school girl wrestlers earn college scholarships for collegiate wrestling programs. She also said that the new wrestling mats that cost $12,000 are in and will be used for wrestling this winter.

Mellinger, in her report, said the annual audit of the K-12 system’s financial records will be Jan. 6-8. In other matters, she said, the district has received a $1,400 grant to defray the cost of materials for a guitar-building class that CHS physics students can take and for an adult education class on that topic next spring.

In other business, the board:

•Changed the districts’ flex administrators from the Bern & Pugh company to Maestro.

•Hired Kent Depner as the assistant boys basketball coach at a stipend of $854. He will work with head coach Austin Schilling.

•Heard that two people have applied for the new K-8 behavior intervention specialist, to be funded with a $30,000 a year for three years grant from the Dyals to allow the elementary school to hire another full-time behavior intervention specialist. Choteau Schools employ two full-time specialists now, one in the elementary school and one in the high school. Gameon said that the funding has yet to arrive so he said the board would likely take action to hire the new specialist at its December meeting and advertising for the position will continue.

•Approved an attendance agreement with Greenfield Elementary School for elementary students of Ashle and Mike Morris of Choteau.

•Approved Sabrina Shows, who is student teaching in Bridger and is the cousin of Choteau third-grade teacher Sami Denning, as a substitute teacher.

•Took more recommended policy changes from the Montana School Boards Association under advisement for future action.

•Scheduled a work session on Dec. 9 at 7 p.m. to conduct the superintendent’s annual job evaluation.

•Set the next regular meeting for Dec. 10 at 9 a.m. in the elementary school music room.