Gallatin High School

Construction at Gallatin High School is nearing completion ahead of it's Aug. 30 opening date.

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The Trump administration is demanding that the nation’s public schools be physically open 100% this fall and threatened to withhold federal money from those that aren’t, but Montana and Bozeman school officials say that won’t sway local decisions.

“I firmly do believe in Montana’s local control,” Elsie Arntzen, Montana superintendent of public instruction, said Wednesday in an interview from Helena.

“Public schools in Montana are governed by local boards,” and they know what’s best for their students, from curriculum to safety, said Arntzen, a Republican. “I believe in local control. One size doesn’t fit all.”

The federal government provides 12.8% of the $1.3 billion Montana schools spend a year, while 43% comes from the state and 40% comes from local taxpayers, according to the state Office of Public Instruction. Arntzen said that she believes federal dollars have never been withheld from Montana schools.

“I believe I’ve got a good relationship with this administration,” Arntzen said. “I will continue (to support) local control. Our students matter.”

Bob Connors, Bozeman school superintendent, said he still plans to decide on Aug. 7 how the 7,000-student school district will operate this fall, to keep kids and adults safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have to look at what’s best for Bozeman,” Connors said.

The possibilities include having students learn partly online and partly in person, and having students broken into groups that would attend in-person classes in the mornings or afternoons, or on alternating days a week. Bozeman schools wouldn’t go back to 100% normal unless the state sees a dramatic reversal in virus cases and spread.

“We’ve always said we want to get everybody back” in school, Connors said. “But the reality of COVID is we don’t know if the spike is going to continue.

“We have to do what’s right for students, for the staff. In Bozeman we’re probably affecting close to 20,000 people,” he said, between the students, parents, teachers and spouses.

The new Gallatin High School will still open this fall, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Aug. 17.

President Donald Trump is pushing U.S. public schools to open five days a week to help get parents back to work and the economy back on track.

Trump accused Democrats in a tweet of wanting to keep schools closed for political reasons related to the November election, and said he “may cut off funding” if schools are not opened.

The president and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos this week demanded that schools operate on a normal schedule.

“That’s his feelings on the subject,” Connors said. “It’s pretty easy to assign jobs that others have to do. It’s easier to say 100% than to pull that off.”

Connors said the district’s financial experts are looking into what it would mean if Bozeman schools lost federal money.

“Some things would have to be cut,” Connors said. “You are concerned anytime it comes to money because budgets are so tight. We’re hopeful it wouldn’t come to that.

“Sometimes you can’t look at the bottom line — you have to look at what’s best for the people of Bozeman, the kids of Bozeman.”

The Bozeman school district receives about $2.5 million a year in ongoing funds from the federal government, mainly for Title I instruction for low-income, at-risk students and special education for students with disabilities, said Mike Waterman, business services director. That’s about 2.5% of the entire school budget.

In addition, Bozeman is expecting to receive $760,000 in one-time money from the CARES Act passed by Congress to help schools hurt by the coronavirus pandemic. It’s not yet clear whether that money would at risk, Waterman said.

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