Chief Joseph Middle School

The parking lot at Chief Joseph Middle School is completely empty as spring break comes to a close Friday in Bozeman.

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The Bozeman School Board has declared an unforeseen emergency in the wake of the governor’s two-week closure of all Montana public schools to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

The trustees’ 7-0 votes at a special meeting Friday protect the school district financially, especially if the closures continue beyond March 27.

The votes also protect students’ credits toward graduation, ensuring that online classes will count the same as in-person classes.

And the votes allow the superintendent to award students class credit if they can prove proficiency in subjects, through their grades or by passing tests, rather than having to sit in class a certain number of hours.

The board also voted 7-0 to cancel bus routes next week, which will save about $10,000 a day for bus routes that won’t run.

Trustees rejected a plea by the First Student bus contractor to continue paying the company, which warned drivers may quit if they get no pay next week — or in future weeks if the school closures continue beyond March 27.

Mike Waterman, school district business services director, urged canceling the bus routes and payment to First Student.

The company argued in a letter and its local branch manager came in person to plead that drivers would have a hard time paying for their housing and other expenses.

But Waterman argued that Bozeman taxpayers are also having a hard time paying their bills and keeping a roof over their heads, and some will lose their incomes because of the virus’ impact. Any money saved on the canceled bus routes would go back to taxpayers next year, he said. They shouldn’t have to pay for something when they receive no benefit, he added.

Though Gov. Steve Bullock has promised to keep paying the state’s share of busing costs during the two-week school closure, the state pays only 15%, Waterman said. The county pays 15% and the rest, 70% “comes straight out of the pockets of local taxpayers” he said. “These are the folks we’re trying to protect.”

It’s First Student’s responsibility to decide whether to pay its drivers next week, Waterman said. The company is fearful some drivers will leave, and that’s a risk, he conceded. But he compared it to paying the light and heat bill to NorthWestern Energy. It’s up to the company, not the schools, to decide whether to pay their employees, he said.

Trustee Douglas Fischer said no one knows how long the school closures will last.

“It’s important we give some indication to parents it is a serious and consequential thing, and we don’t necessarily have an end date in mind,” Fischer said. “Nothing I’m seeing suggests we’re going to be back in school March 30 when the governor’s order lifts. Potentially for a lengthy period, it’s going to be off-site instruction.”

Trustee Gary Lusin agreed and said one result of the emergency declaration is that “if the governor decides not to extend beyond the 27th, we can extend” the school closure in Bozeman “and get funding for it.”

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.