MONTROSE – School starts in Montrose County on Monday, Aug. 22, and Mark MacHale, the district’s new superintendent can’t wait to meet all the students and teachers.
MacHale, 51, has only been on the job for about a month, and was formerly superintendent for the Dolores School District. He said he was happy in Dolores, but when the job came open in Montrose, he thought it would be a good time for a new challenge, so MacHale, his wife Laurelee, and their two children, Maggie, 10, and Luke, 13, have moved into a downtown rental while they look for a permanent place.
The kids weren’t too happy about having to leave their friends, MacHale said, but he thinks they’ll make new friends fast once school starts.
MacHale has been spending his time before the onslaught of students begins getting to know the community, attending functions and “getting out and about,” he said. He has worked in several school districts on the Western Slope, but said he’s happy to be here and meeting people at Main in Motion, at civic clubs and on the street.
“Montrose is the friendliest town in the state,” he said. “My wife loves it, and this is the only job I applied for.”
But aside from the social niceties, MacHale has a hard job ahead as he deals with a budget that’s been slashed to the bone. Karin Slater, the district’s chief financial officer, said the adopted budget of $62 million had been reduced by $3.7 million from last year.
The school district’s budget is based on revenue projections (from property taxes) and student enrollment, two things that are hard to predict, MacHale said. Cuts to administrative staff are noticeable, thanks to several empty cubicles along the way to MacHale’s office. A hiring freeze in place for months was lifted this week, he said, so positions could be filled for a gifted and talented teacher and two fulltime custodians.
“We’ve had a pay freeze for several years,” he said, but other costs – for “things like insurance” for employees are mounting. As a school, of course, “Most of what we do, we use people for,” he said, and to that end, “We will continue to invest in teachers and staff.”
The school district, which normally employs about 800 people, is down to about 700 at present, he said, while the budget remains strapped.
“Our first commitment is to the kids,” he said. “We do have to have quality teachers, but we also have to have bus drivers and student health clerks.
“We’re taking every position on an individual basis: Do we need this? Can we do without it?”
It’s a shame that schools have to struggle with budgets, when education should be our highest priority, he indicated.
“There was an article in the New York Times about how when we go to a country like Afghanistan, the first thing we do is pump money into the schools, but we cut our own schools,” he said. “That has serious implications, because we see education as an investment, not as a cost.”
Testing is also a challenge for school districts, but important in helping students to develop test-taking skills and so that schools can measure student achievement.
But federally mandated testing through the No Child Left Behind Act seems unnecessary, when Colorado’s student tests are among the best in the country already – and every state has a different test, he added.
“We are competing in a global market and need to measure and see how the kids are doing,” he said. “The Colorado CSAP is a darn good test where they have to write things out…and with some multiple choice, but at a high level.”
There are good tests and bad tests, MacHale said, and the No Child Left Behind test is not as good as the CSAP.
If students score ‘partially proficient’ on the Colorado test, they meet the minimum standards of NCLB, but not the Colorado minimum.
The federal test is “superfluous” for local schools, he said, and was created to solve the problems of failing urban and inner city schools, which causes problems for suburban and rural schools.
“Testing is very complicated, but any time the feds get involved in solving your problem, watch out,” he said.
Most schools are not failing, but doing very well, MacHale said, citing a recent study. “It said that 80 percent of people give their local schools A and B grades,” he said, while schools statewide were rated as B or C, and the majority of respondents gave schools nationwide a D or F, which defies logic.
“How is that possible?” MacHale asked.
But MacHale’s main focus is the task at hand, focusing on student achievement and learning, which must continue beyond high school, in one form or another, for everyone.
“We exist to make sure our kids are ready for post secondary school and the workplace,” he said. “But they will always need more whether it’s beauty school or college. Gone are the days when a high school education is enough.”
The Montrose School District has a high graduation rate, MacHale said, but there’s always room for improvement, and that goes back family and community support and to good teachers.
“A good teacher knows how to help every student reach their highest potential,” he said.
MacHale started out as a teacher before becoming an administrator, and has also worked for school districts in Rifle and Steamboat Springs. He said Western Slope communities share common values and economics and are very supportive of their local schools.
“Coloradans appreciate that people can solve their own problems,” he said.