The Helena Public Schools Board interviewed four finalists Friday for the interim school superintendent position and expects to make its hiring decision at a special public board meeting 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 26, at the Ray Bjork Learning Center.
The public can see and hear the interviews online at the Helena Public Schools website, starting Monday.
The board is accepting public comment through Thursday, including at Thursday’s meeting.
A comment form can be downloaded at the helenair.com website and dropped off at the May Butler Building.
Or you can email comments to all the board members at http://helenaschools.org/board-of-trustees/contact-the-board-of-trustees/.
Candidate resumes are posted with this story online at helenair.com.
Creating a school facilities plan, addressing inadequate school funding, dealing with displaced Central School students and rebuilding trust with the community were among the knotty issues tackled by interim superintendent finalists: Lona Carter-Scanlon, Jack Copps, Keith Meyer and Greg Upham during hour-long interviews.
Lona Carter-Scanlon, Jefferson Elementary School Principal since 2003, said that what’s best for kids should be the guiding principle for the district and staff. She advised the board that the school district is losing new professional’s families coming to Helena for jobs, but choosing to live in Montana City or Clancy because they have better school facilities.
Facilities. The community is reeling from the failed bond, she said. There was a big communication gap, including between administration and staff. She was at a public meeting when she first heard that Jefferson School might be changed into an administration building, she said.
When the facility plan started, “we were looking for a middle school solution.” But the middle school situation never got addressed in the bond.
She advocated for a more grassroots approach next time and pulling out the Mosaic Study and reviewing it.
She suggested developing a facilities plan that has trigger points, such as East Helena is doing, so that decisions can be made with adequate time. “It pulls out that emotional chunk,” she said. In Helena, people weren’t thinking globally but rather about their spot.
Funding. The Helena School Superintendent needs to be a visible force at the upcoming legislature working for adequate funding.
She wants to explore why a number of families have chosen other alternatives than the public schools and perhaps bridge that gap. “I want them to see we can do a fine job of educating” their children.
Communications. Carter-Scanlon advocates open, straightforward communication between the superintendent, the board and the larger community.
“I don’t have issues dealing with conflict,” she said, pointing out that one of her previous jobs was dealing with discipline problems at Helena High School. “I do conflict well.”
She believes in an open-door policy with staff and community members, she said, and tries to respond quickly to calls.
“I am an advocate for every child in our community,” she said.
Healing rifts. It takes a while to build trust, she said. It’s something she’s worked hard to do at Jefferson School, which went through some rocky times when a principal was split between two buildings.
“There’s no magic bullet,” she said. “It takes time.”
She said she also built trust and good relations as the administrator for the district’s Indian Education For All program.
Displaced Central School students: Jefferson School receives many transfers from Central families. “I think it has been very, very difficult”... ”you can see the pain on their faces. They are visibly upset about it.”
She wondered how to reduce school sites, by perhaps closing May Butler Center, put the money into moving to Central and put the kids back into their school.
Sooner or later, the school district will have to deal with preschool students and needs to plan for it.
Moving Central School students to Ray Bjork School would just displace preschool kids. “I’d like to look at a more comprehensive approach.”
“Jack” Copps, most recently was the superintendent of Billings Public Schools for seven years. He is also the former superintendent and assistant superintendent of Helena Public Schools from 1980 to 1989. He lived in Helena 18 years, he said, and still has strong ties here. He also has experience successfully helping Billings heal some significant rifts.
Facilities. Copps said a key element for success is “involving the business community and asking them to provide leadership.”
Helena has always valued public education and wanted it “to be as good as it can be,” he said. “Differences need to be aired, and we need to use our common ground to find our way forward. ... It can be done, but you have to find that path.”
Funding. Copps is the former executive director of the Montana Quality Education Coalition and has extensive experience with school funding. He was part of a successful lawsuit against the state for not adequately funding public schools. The suit significantly changed the funding mechanism for schools, he said following his interview. “From my vantage point I see a little slipping in that area.”
He would go back to the Legislature to ask it for fair funding, he said.
A special legislative commission for education recently found two areas of Montana education that are not adequately funded: facilities and special education.
“If your budget is at 100 percent (of what’s allowed by law) and we’re struggling more than we should because of lack of resources, we can engage the Legislature.”
Communications. “Communication between board and superintendent requires attention from every member,” he said. “Each of us has to find a way to be successful. ...You don’t build relationships by exchanging a piece of paper.”
Communication with the community is not fixed overnight, he said. But it happens at every level of the school district -- every time a teacher interacts with a parent.
“We need to build a trusting relationship,” he said. There shouldn’t be any line between the school and community. “Closeness can cure a lot of ills.”
Healing rifts. “Helena is in my blood,” he said. “I would love to have an opportunity to meet with people in the community.”
When Copps went to Billings there were four or five rifts in the community, he said.
This year of an interim superintendent will go quickly, he said, and should not involve a lot of risks and turning things upside down.
“The most important thing is to empower people,” he said. “One leader is not adequate. Good leadership brings about good leaders.”
“Billings was a kick. If I’m superintendent ... Helena will be a kick.”
Displaced Central School students: Research is clear that the further kids are from school, the smaller the number of hours the parents are connected to the school, said Copps.
“Neighborhood schools matter,” he said. They particularly matter for at-risk families.
Parents who are in good conditions can adjust to changes fairly easily, he said, but that’s not the case for parents who are really struggling.
There’s not a magic size for schools, he said. Sometimes a school of 500 is too big, sometimes it’s not.
When a large number of the school population is low income, sometimes 250 students is the right size.
In Billings, attempts to close a downtown school were opposed by downtown businesses. “Downtown people wanted a school in that area.”
Keith Meyer, the director of education at Shodair Children’s Hospital and the former interim superintendent of Helena Public Schools, said his strength is being an active listener.
“I won’t have all the answers when I come in,” he said. “The answers come through collaboration,” which he has a long history of doing throughout his career.
It’s a skill he relied on, as well as a lot of face-to-face meetings when he steered Helena School District through two earlier school closures -- Ray Bjork and Lincoln schools.
Facilities. Meyer recommended revisiting existing facilities studies, he said. It’s time to go back and review the information, as well as the themes and what processes were used for community involvement and communication.
Meyer interviewed both the Missoula and Great Falls school superintendents to learn how they successfully passed bonds, he said.
The strategic plan is an essential starting point for a good facilities plan.
The public has to know the plan, he said, as do school staff.
Funding facilities improvements may have to be done piecemeal, he said.
Both school districts advised Meyer to form a committee of community movers and shakers that understands the plan, supports it and is willing to advocate for it out in the community.
“It’s like running a Senate campaign,” he was told. “You have to be very specific,” and “we have to have our ducks in a row.”
Funding. The district and Meyer would need to work with local legislators, state offices and state education associations to go to the Legislature to increase funding.
Meyer also spoke of forming community partnerships. One example could be working with Shodair Children’s Hospital, he said, on such things as certain kinds of professional development training -- such as understanding the long-term effects of trauma on children.
Communications. Meyer would be in touch with all board members regularly, he said. He would also be the district’s “number one cheerleader ... along with you” out in the community.
His favorite part of being an HPS administrator in the past was spending time in the schools, meeting with principals, teachers, custodians and parents.
He’d keep the district’s advisory groups in place and meet with them and with parent groups.
“I want to get to know people personally. ...I’m really a face-to-face person.”
Healing rifts. Working as a Helena Schools administrator, he was the one that did a lot of the work involved in closing Ray Bjork and Lincoln schools. Lincoln students were fairly easily absorbed into Bryant School, which was in the same neighborhood. But Ray Bjork was more of a challenge, with students moving to two different schools -- Smith and Jefferson and switching the schools’ attendance boundaries.
It was particularly difficult, he said, because his own daughter was a Ray Bjork student at the time. “It was listening, listening, listening,” he said, with lots of meetings with teachers and parents so there would not be residual anger.
Displaced Central School students: Central School sitting empty should be a concern to everyone, he said. “We shouldn’t be content with that.”
In the past the building has been considered for a Montessori magnet school, he said. The district needs to look at the structure, decide if it should be a school or used for a different purpose. At times in the past, Central struggled to have adequate enrollment, he said.
He advocated looking at the data and attendance boundaries for Jefferson, Smith, Central and Hawthorne in making a decision.
Academic achievement, particularly recent gains on ACT scores, was one of the successes Greg Upham, Helena’s assistant superintendent, emphasized.
Catching students problems early, in elementary and middle school, and making sure they’re at benchmark in math and reading is one way the school district will ensure their future career and college success.
Facilities. Decisions, should be driven by the data and the school district’s learning objectives, he said.
The data should include student numbers, where they live, school building size and the school’s enrollment, he said following the interview.
“Instruction should always drive construction,” he said.
As facilities planning goes forward, Upham wants to see facilities that provide a better bridge between high school and Helena College’s tech programs.
“When we build our new facilities, which we will, technology will be a major factor,” he said.
Funding. Ninety-three percent of the school’s general fund goes to staff costs, he said, and 3 percent to fixed costs such as utilities. Staff costs aren’t likely to go down, since fewer employees will be retiring in coming years, he said.
School consolidation could save some resources, he said, such as school counselors being split across several buildings.
The school district is seeing greater mental health needs, he said, and any available money he could find he would sink into more school counselors. Middle schools also need attention, he said. Resources, such as instructional materials, computers, books, teachers, paraprofessionals and counselors are stretched too thin.
The middle school model should offer a lot more choices, he said, so kids can discover a passion that might help them achieve in school.
The enrollment at CR Anderson is too large and crowded to allow for more academic choices, he said, nor is it getting the instructional and mental health resources it should.
Communications are one of his strengths, Upham said. He knows a large number of people on both sides of town. He’s also skilled, he said, in finding the right people for the right jobs.
As assistant superintendent, he communicates regularly with building principals and would take the same approach with keeping in touch with board members.
“It’s just being out there and talking to people,” he said of his ideas for engaging the community. There is no best means of communication, he said, except perhaps one-on-one.
He advocated consistent, clear language when communicating about a facilities plan and bond.
Healing rifts. “Honesty will heal,” he said. It’s important to stop pointing fingers over why the last bond failed because bonds are very complex issues.
He would give the public the best information he could and be honest.
The school district can’t ignore other community needs that will also require community bond votes, he said, such as a detention center.
“None of us drives a Cadillac,” he said, so maybe the school district needs to sort out its wants from its needs and go for an updated Chevy.
Dealing with the facilities issue might mean breaking it down and “eating an elephant one bite at a time.”
Displaced Central School students: Public education needs to do the greatest good for the greatest all, he said. “Here’s the bottom line, if we can’t share in this community we won’t get done what needs to be done. ...8,011 students is what I base my decision on.”