Tough budget choices at SGHS

The time has come for tough choices at Sweet Grass County High School. 

Declining enrollment coupled with rising insurance costs have put the high school between a rock and a hard place — and something had to give.

During a special meeting March 8, the board voted 4-1 to oust first-year math teacher Sidney Stines. 

Stines was hired last year after Jake Hall resigned. Justin Arlian was the sole member opposed to the motion. 

Board member Mike Chulyak said the board’s decision had nothing to do with Stines’ performance, and everything to do with low enrollment, which is only projected to drop further in the coming years. Declining enrollment means less state funding — meanwhile, health insurance costs are on a steady upward course, rising 54.5 percent over the past seven years. 

“This decision is not discipline or performance based, and Ms. Stines should be given a positive letter of recommendation from both district administrators,” Chulyak said in his motion to “reduction in force” (RIF) Stines, effective July 1.  

The move came despite the fact that two teachers put in for retirement the end of February. 

Ag teacher Gary Mattheis and P.E. teacher Jane Ryan accepted the school’s $10,000 retirement incentive. The negotiations committee offered the incentive in hopes they’d be able to reduce staff in a less painful way and, perhaps, leave enough room for a pay increase for teachers. 

Also at play in Stines’ RIF was a request from Sheri Campbell to switch from guidance counseling to math — which would have overloaded the math department. 

Board chairman Tim Yuzeitis said during a March 2 negotiations meeting that if Campbell moved from guidance to math then Stines would have to go. 

“You’re really wanting out of the guidance,”Yuzeitis said. “You’re just overwhelmed and feeling a little burnt out, which I completely get. I can understand.”

During a March 8 interview, Yuzeitis added Stines’ lack of multiple subject endorsements was also a factor in their decision. 

But the retirements alone will not be enough to solve the school’s fiscal problems — at least not long-term, Yuzeitis said. Currently, SGHS spends roughly $250,000 in health insurance annually, he added.

“Historically it’s been 7 percent, and a 7 percent increase is $18,000, and if we keep looking at an $18,000 increase every year, that’s where we’re having a problem,”  Yuzeitis said of health insurance costs. “Our budget is our budget of $1.7 million-something and insurance keeps increasing at a rate that we can’t afford anymore, so we’ve reached that point now. … This has been on our plate for several years and putting our head in the sand isn’t the answer anymore. This is the year we have to fix it. “

With Mattheis’ and Ryan’s retirements, as well as Stines’ departure, Yuzeitis said the school is looking at roughly $100,000 in savings — minus steps and lanes, and an impending increase in health insurance costs. 

SGHS Superintendent Al Buerkle said the school should have an idea what the jump in insurance costs will be by March 25.

To read the full story, pick up the March 10 edition of the Pioneer or subscribe to our e-edition. Current subscribers are provided complimentary access to the e-edition with registration.

Story and photo by Mackenzie Reiss / Pioneer Staff Writer

CUTLINE: Members of the Sweet Grass County High School negotiations committee meet Feb. 26. 

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