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Former Billings superintendent serving as Heart Butte interim leadership

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Former Billings superintendent serving as Heart Butte interim leadership

Feb 07, 2024 | 3:22 pm ET
By Nicole Girten
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Former Billings superintendent serving as Heart Butte interim leadership
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A school bus drives into Heart Butte Schools (Photo by Rion Sanders)

The Heart Butte School Board selected former Billings Superintendent Greg Upham to serve as interim school superintendent as the school works to balance its budget with a $2.5 million deficit.

Board co-chair Edith Horn Wagner said during a meeting with state officials Tuesday she likes the suggestions Upham has been offering. Upham said he started work in his position Monday and his goals are to stabilize school operations and the budget, with suggestions for how the Office of Public Instruction can help as well.

“The school is as fragile of a school as I’ve seen in my years,” Upham said. “It needs significant care.”

The school is working to put out immediate “fires” like water shortages and flooding issues, while also trying to balance the district’s budget. Consultants and state officials are working with the district to get the school emergency COVID-19 funds, and, after some back and forth, the school should be receiving $670,000 by Friday. OPI staff also reported some of the deficits are already being paid back, and the school is on track to continue those efforts.

The district in a January statement explained the financial crisis was due largely to financial mismanagement through not paying payroll taxes or employee retirement, and employees making personal expenditures on the district’s dime.

Superintendent Mike Tatsey, who was placed on administrative leave in September, has been accused of using school funds for expensive rodeo equipment. The school started the financial audit after placing Tatsey on leave in September.

The board decided unanimously at a well-attended meeting last month, with Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen in attendance, to lay off about half of the staff at the school, including janitorial staff, kitchen staff and teacher’s aides, to help stabilize the budget. There was concern the school wouldn’t be able to keep its doors open in the fall without such intervention.

The board accepted then-interim Superintendent Shannon Augare’s resignation at the same meeting, and shortly after, Principal Sandi Campbell, who served as the next interim superintendent, handed in her resignation as well.

Now, Upham is in charge of tackling school leadership in Heart Butte.

Arntzen and Office of Public Instruction staff and Heart Butte stakeholders met Tuesday for a Heart Butte update, where Upham described himself as a “poorly retired superintendent.” He retired as superintendent of School District 2 in Billings after 37 years last summer, but started his teaching career in Browning, as reported by KTVQ.

One of the steps all stakeholders were supportive of was training for board members and business managers to make sure a deficit this large doesn’t accumulate again, but Upham said he understands how training doesn’t get sought out in struggling schools like Heart Butte.

“We ran out of water yesterday. I canceled school in the afternoon because we didn’t have water. Got up this morning, we had a flood in our elementary area – impacted seven to nine classrooms. We had to relocate classrooms,” he said.

Horn Wagner said she requested training as a board member but was denied. She said it wasn’t clear board members were entitled to training until last year, at which point the board hired a consultant. But she said it feels almost too late since she’s in the last year of her term.

“I think moving forward, it should be a requirement that all new trustees be made aware of the training and opportunities out there because I really feel like my experience as a board trustee was very limited,” she said. “I was going on the advice of the leader, who was our superintendent.”

OPI’s School Nutrition Programs Director Christine Emerson said the kitchen staff is struggling to meet the demands of providing two meals a day after cuts earlier this year.

Arntzen asked about the potential for grant-funded help or volunteers to assist, but Upham put the brakes on hiring until the budget is in a better place, and School Business Consultant Jenine Synness said people who lost those jobs wouldn’t take kindly to the idea.

OPI staff said it might be a legal concern and the idea was put on pause. Emerson said the district received about $23,400 in grants aimed to help the kitchen with increased food costs and increased staffing costs.

Later in the meeting, Synness asked about the status of emergency school aid (ESSER) funds Heart Butte had submitted an application for two weeks prior. OPI’s Chief Financial Officer Jay Phillips said there was likely an administrative error on the department’s end, and the school would see the funds by the end of the week.

OPI’s ESSER Director Wendi Fawns told the Daily Montanan Tuesday the reason for the delay was the department was still waiting on part of the school’s application, but Synness confirmed to the Daily Montanan Wednesday their application had been approved hours after the meeting. The school is expecting to receive $670,000 in aid funds by Friday.

Phillips said after some negotiations with the Department of Revenue, a $270,000 liability was reduced to around $10,000. He said the district got its federal and state payroll taxes up to date, but is still working on getting the retirement funds paid. The Montana Teacher Retirement System wanted to conduct an audit, but Phillips said the department requested to hold off on that for 12 months to give the school some time to address the budget as a whole.

Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning asked why the district should wait for an audit, as it would be a good snapshot in time for what the fiscal status of the district is currently, but Synness explained this particular audit would be especially time consuming, and could be a distraction, “when we know we have much bigger fish to fry.”

Stakeholders will meet with state officials again on Feb. 21.