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Big Timber schools view grim cuts
Fifth-grade students in a social-studies class at Big Timber Elementary School create Native American homes.

In Big Timber on Friday, school officials were doing the math ahead of possible cutbacks after Stillwater Mining Co. idled its nearby East Boulder mine.

Much of the elementary school's property tax revenue comes from the platinum and palladium mine, which announced Monday that it was idling its East Boulder operation and gave 526 employees layoff notices that could be made permanent Jan. 16.

Gary Harkness, superintendent of Big Timber Elementary School, said at least 124 of the school's 350 students are children of Stillwater employees, or children of people who work for companies serving the mine. Even before the mine layoffs, enrollment at the school had fallen 27 students from last year, he said.

Stillwater's cutbacks are a big concern because some miners who moved to town from other states may leave for good. Locals who left other jobs to work at the mine may also be out of luck.

"Those jobs they did before they went to the mine probably aren't available now," he said.

The elementary school receives about $4,500 per student in state aide. The state's complex reimbursement formula means the school district won't feel the impact for at least a year.

Yet the community impact reaches beyond school budgets, Harkness said.

"We are concerned for the families," he said. "They might be coming on some hard times and we want to do whatever we can to help them and keep things going."

Because mine employees' families tend to be younger, the potential impact is much greater at the elementary school than at Sweet Grass High School.

High School Superintendent Al Buerkle said that of the 206 high school students, 32 are from mining families.

Stillwater families have kept the Big Timber schools from suffering the kind of budget cuts other rural schools have wrestled with in recent years as populations have dwindled. Even so, last summer the Big Timber school board's budget and finance committee started looking at potential cutbacks.

"It's strange that we had started that work here in August and September to be more proactive and look ahead in our budgets, and then the layoff news hit," Buerkle said. "Boy, this committee might really have some work to do this year."

In the meantime, Stillwater Mining officials and union leaders said they have held at least one meeting this week trying to reach agreement on scaling-down overall operations and cutting employees so the East Boulder can reopen.

But no details of the negotiations were immediately available. Stillwater Mining Vice President John Stark and United Steel Workers representative Steve Gentry agreed not to talk to reporters unless they issue a joint statement or give the other party a 24-hour notice.

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A Thursday press release from Stark and Gentry said, "Both SMC and the USW union realize the urgency in concluding the restructuring negotiations as quickly as possible."

An undetermined number of the laid-off East Boulder workers will be offered jobs at East Boulder in a scaled-down operation. And some will be transferred to the larger Stillwater Mine near Nye. The company is replacing 50 contract workers with its own employees and immediately laid off an undisclosed number of workers still on probation.

Stillwater Mining is cutting its overall costs by 25 percent. That means reducing its 1,770 employees by 21 percent, or 320 people, plus the 50 contractors.

Some of the miners idled at the East Boulder were invited to a meeting in Big Timber on Friday morning and offered a chance to transfer to Nye.

One miner, who asked not to be identified because he is worried about his future job prospects, said employees at the meeting were told there were 57 jobs available. He estimated that roughly 150 miners from the East Boulder may be seeking those Nye jobs.

Contact Jan Falstad at jfalstad@billingsgazette.com or 657-1306.

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