Five of nine Missoula County school board candidates spent Friday afternoon in the hot seat at the Five Valleys Pachyderm Club.
For about 50 minutes, the candidates answered a diverse array of questions concerning everything from the time commitment of the job to how to get more free-enterprise classes in the schools.
Taking the turn at the microphone were incumbents Scott Bixler and Joe Toth and newcomer Diane Lorenzen, who are running for one of three open seats with full three-year terms.
Rose Dickson and Scott Todd, who are both vying for the one-year elementary school seat, also participated in the event.
All of the candidates expressed support of the Missoula County Public Schools technology levies, as the funding will cover only the replacement of existing equipment, and all agreed on the need for better communication between the board, administration and the community.
Before answering questions, each candidate had two minutes to explain why they want to be a trustee for Missoula County Public Schools.
Responding in alphabetical order, Bixler used the time to show the depth of his knowledge about the district and why the technology levies need support by providing answers to a quiz he printed up and supplied to the audience of 20 people.
Among the factoids Bixler’s quiz provided:
MCPS has more than 3,700 computers and 588 printers that are replaced every five to six years, he said. The number of states that scored higher than Montana eighth-graders in reading is zero, average composite ACT score for Missoula 11th-graders is 23.1 while the national average is 21.1, and 49.1 percent of MCPS elementary students qualify for free and reduced lunches.
Lorenzen explained she has served on other school boards in the state and enjoys the work. Her priorities are ensuring the district is frugal with its money, and has a sensible spending plan in place should the technology levies pass.
Toth said after nine years on the board and helping the district move forward, he wants that good work to continue. He’s particularly proud of the work that has increased graduation rates and reduced dropout rates. He also would continue his work championing the arts and music programs.
Dickson, who graduated from Big Sky High School in 2010 and is an education major at the University of Montana, said she would bring a fresh perspective to the board. She believes some groups within the district have been well served by the board’s decisions, but she is concerned that others have been left out. She want to make sure “everyone feels they have a place and their needs are being met.”
Todd, who has served 11 weeks on the board after being appointed in February to the remainder of a term left open by a trustee resignation, said he’s learned a lot so far and is excited to continue on the board. Improving communication with the community is critical, as MCPS does not do a good job talking about the great things it does achieve with students and staff.
When asked about the role of parents in the education of children, all of the candidates agreed parents play a critical role.
All encouraged more parent involvement. Lorenzen separated herself from the pack by stating that the school day is just one part of a child’s day and that it is important for parents to be ready and prepared to teach and inspire students after school.
Concerns about the Common Core standards were raised by the audience, and the candidates all said that because Montana has adopted the curriculum, there’s no turning back from its demands.
Bixler said it’s a great idea like No Child Left Behind, and it will take money and energy to make it work effectively.
Toth said because it specifically addresses what students know and what they need to know, it will be a good thing. Because it requires computer testing throughout the district by 2015, the need for the technology levy and working bandwidth and computers is critical.
Todd said that although Common Core will be implemented in the fall and the state Legislature has adopted it, he’s hoping the MCPS district won’t have to buy a bunch of new textbooks. On some level he is supportive of the data-collecting nature of the curriculum.
Dickson expressed a concern that in general, students are buried in homework, and she would like for students to have homework that truly matters and is not busy work.
Lorenzen said she didn’t know much about Common Core, but believes the district should protect kids from all the testing it will require. She believes the district should do the minimal testing to comply with the requirements in order for students’ education to not be disrupted.
The objective of the Friday event was to provide information so that voters could make decisions about the candidates, said Susan Muralt, president of the Pachyderm Club.
Absent from the candidate forum were Michael Beers and Julie Tompkins, who are running for a seat to represent the high school district for three years. Drake Lemm and Ann Wake, who are running for the Lolo, Woodman, Desmet three-year seat to represent the high school district, also were absent.