Frustrated by the conflict she saw on the Missoula County Public Schools Board of Trustees, and concerned the school district was having a difficult time moving forward, Toni Rehbein decided to seek a seat on the school board.

The year was 2004, and it was a time when board meetings often ran long into the night, and sometimes the next morning.

“There was a lot of stress and a lot of criticism about what was happening,” Rehbein said last week as her nine-year tenure as a school trustee was winding down.

Rehbein is not seeking re-election, and voters will choose new trustees on Tuesday. They will be seated at the May 14 board meeting.

“I feel strongly that we are all either part of the problem or part of the solution,” she said. “I realized I was complaining, too, so I better do something about that and be part of the solution.”

So on a March day at the Missoula County Courthouse gazebo, Rehbein announced her intention to run with two other like-minded school board hopefuls, Scott Bixler and Joe Toth.

Although the trio ran separate campaigns, they announced their candidacy together, stating they wanted a “common-sense approach” to help manage Missoula County’s public schools.

At the time, Rehbein, had recently retired after a 27-year career in the district as a teacher and administrator.

“I’m concerned about the lack of cooperation on the board,” she said at the courthouse news conference. “We need a board that communicates with each other, as well as with the administration. We need to trust each other and listen to each other.”

***

In the years since, Rehbein has stuck to her initial campaign platform, and Missoula’s schools have benefited, say many of the people with whom she has worked.

Described as dedicated and committed to student success, those who came to know Rehbein also respect how she directed the board as chairman for nearly five years.

“I think she showed some very solid leadership of the board; she was very embracing of innovative and new ideas that came before the board,” said Melanie Charlson, president of the teachers union.

“She did ask tough questions at times, and she asked them of the administration at times. She held herself to a high standard and held those standards to everyone in the district.

“I think Toni is an incredibly hard worker, and the last two years I can only recall her being absent from a board meeting only once or twice.”

Missoula businessman Gary Bakke served on several committees with Rehbein and appreciated her desire to help all youth in the district.

“I admire her ability to listen to all sides involved in school issues and the needs of the community,” Bakke said. “She, along with the superintendent and the board, have definitely opened their arms to business and allowing business to have a voice in the education system.”

Bakke, retired from his Bakke Tire shop, points to the fact that while MCPS pushes forward new curriculums like language immersion, it also is expanding its automotive courses next year.

“I think that the board is looking at and supporting pathways for vocational training, and that is a good thing,” he said.

***

Rehbein was seated as a trustee at a time when Missoula Catholic Schools was interested in buying Roosevelt School from the district, and when the board had already decided to close Rattlesnake Middle School and Mount Jumbo and Prescott elementary schools as a way to balance the budget.

Her first board meeting was a fiery one in which conservative advocates lobbied to muzzle the faculty adviser of the Hellgate High School student newspaper for allowing inappropriate material into print, and argued discussions of homosexuality should be excluded from high school diversity weeks.

The matter sparked pushback from other members of the community, who protested the promotion of a conservative Christian agenda in the public schools.

If Rehbein’s wish was truly to recast how the board dealt with contention, she’s had plenty of opportunity from day one into her final weeks as a trustee nine years later.

Consider a few of the issues that unfolded during Rehbein’s tenure on the board:

• A lawsuit by Good Schools Missoula that challenged the board’s decision to sell Roosevelt school

• Complaints about the board’s violation of state open-meeting laws

• And enrollment drops and budget cuts that threatened the fine arts curriculum.

Then there was the issue of trustee Nancy Pickhardt’s resignation after leaving an obscenity-laced message on the answering machine of a retired MCPS teacher who criticized trustees for giving a 10 percent raise to Superintendent Alex Apostle in 2010.

More recently, the MCPS board spoke out against the Poverello Center’s move to the former Trail’s End property on West Broadway near Lowell Elementary School. It also has approved and launched forward-thinking curriculums such as Graduation Matters Missoula, the Health Sciences Academy and the International Baccalaureate program.

And in January, a divided board voted 6-4 to give Apostle a 13 percent raise – a decision Rehbein supported – making him the highest superintendent in the state and igniting significant public outcry.

***

Throughout it all, Rehbein said she has voted her conscience – what she believes in her “heart of hearts” – and always with the agenda of improving Missoula’s public schools for students and families.

Nurturing an environment that allows respectful disagreement among board members, which in turn has created a solution-oriented functional board, is something Rehbein ranks among her successes as chairman.

“I saw it as my job to really listen to my fellow board members and the public,” Rehbein said. “When I first came on the board, we had a lot of public comment in those days and meetings that would last for several hours,” she said.

While she respects the public, who give up their evenings to express concerns and problems they see in the district or on the board, Rehbein said she also feels long and emotional meetings filled with a lot of public comment reflect distrust in how the board handles district issues.

“Public participation has changed greatly in the last five years, and there has not been a single issue other than the superintendent’s raise where we were having large groups coming to comment at meetings,” Rehbein said. “People don’t care to comment unless they are concerned about an issue.

“That people have not been riled up, that they don’t come to meetings is something the board has taken as a positive sign.”

***

Although critics – and some of the candidates currently running for trustee – complain of a rubber-stamp board that votes in lock step, the reality of the board’s decision-making is far different, said trustee Joe Knapp, who voted against Apostle’s most recent raise.

“I don’t think most people truly understand the level in which we as a board discuss matters and the background work we do to understand those issues,” Knapp said. “All of that takes place in committee meetings, where we have robust discussions and disagreements, but we resolve contentious issues and differences of opinion there.

“The monthly school board meetings are really not a working meeting, in the sense of hammering through specific details, because we have already done that in committee meetings.”

No matter how difficult an issue, that trustees maintain respect for one another and continue moving forward is in large part due to Rehbein, Knapp said.

“She is a tremendous leader,” he said. “And she has made a real contribution to this district by doing everything she possibly could to make our public schools an opportunity and environment for all kids, regardless of socioeconomic background.”

As chairman, Rehbein often has taken flak as the board spokesperson, and therefore at times appeared as if she were Apostle’s most ardent supporter.

Rehbein said that has not been the case, and Apostle laughed at such a notion.

“Toni has strong opinions and will stand up for what she believes in,” Apostle said. “She is not afraid to stand up for what is right and how she feels about specific issues. At the same time, she has empathy for where other people are coming from and is someone who brings people together.

“Because of that, she is a great leader, she is a collaborative leader, she is a visionary, a great board member – and I am going to miss her tremendously.”

***

Serving on the volunteer board has been a privilege and a commitment that has absorbed around 20 hours a week, Rehbein said.

She is proud that she leaves behind a functional board that quality people want to be a part of, and that she helped create a more student-focused district that has resulted in higher graduation rates, lower dropout rates and more educational opportunities – from vocational training to dual credit college classes – than ever before.

“Our district has moved light years ahead, and I believe that is a good thing,” she said. “The demise of public education is the demise of democracy. If schools don’t become progressive, what will be left of public education? We will exist only for people who cannot afford private schools or charter schools.

“As I testified in the Legislature when the issue of charter school funding came up, you don’t need a charter school because our public schools are doing it right.”

When the school board convenes May 14 to seat the new trustees, Rehbein will hand over her seat, the chairman’s gavel and walk out.

The start of a new era will begin for the board and for Rehbein.

The timing is right, she said, even though she hasn’t yet decided how she will fill all of her free hours.

“I do know what I will do when I leave for the last time,” she said. “My husband said, ‘I’ll be sitting at our favorite restaurant – waiting for you.’ ”

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

(10) comments

Miss Teacher
Miss Teacher

I fail to see why everyone is posting that she is a left leaning liberal. As a liberal myself , I support teachers and our public schools as do most liberals I know. Ms. Rehbein is an elitist in every sense and it is an insult for people to call her a liberal. She and her cronies are self serving and ego centric. She isn't running again because she knows she will be voted out! Good riddance.

Buzz Feedback
Buzz Feedback

I'm not sure why the head of the teachers union is in the paper saying anything complimentary about Ms. Rehbein. No wonder Alex The Grifter gets everything he wants.

Everyday person
Everyday person

On one hand, I _do_ want to disassociate myself from the non-sensical "anti-left" ranting and other troll agendas and opt to stick with the issue that is at hand. On the other hand, this candidate is clearly working contrary to the interest of the local people and our children. She's handing our money -- which should support teachers and facilities -- to her elite cronies who continue to prosper and smile at the people in their smug satisfaction. On that note, the Missoulian's photo really is worth a thousand words -- featuring Ms. Rehbein's smirking face looking down at us plebians, as if to say, "enjoy your cake, sukkas!"

Greenland
Greenland

If she was running for political office, I would have thought I had just read a paid political announcement, a press release by a campaign publicity officer simply published intact as a news item..

walter12
walter12

It is difficult to support these women on anything involving the MCPS. Most are hard core leftists. And they are consumed by the desire for more and more money for the MCPS.

Gustave
Gustave

I really fail to see how she can see how someone can make a decision that causes huge community outcry(first Apostle raise), and then a couple years later do the same thing but in a much larger fashion. When she voted for the second raise, she knew that Missoula did not support raising Apostle's salary, but didn't care. I alway s thought the reason for having a school board was to ensure that school district is acting according to the community's wishes, but I guess I'm wrong. I'm glad she is leaving. After her actions on the board, I question her motives for running in the first place.

Fighting 4 Missoula
Fighting 4 Missoula

Gustave, It is my opinion and that of others who were atending meetings in 2004, that the reason for Rehbein running for a seat on the school board was to secure Prescott School (located in the lower Rattlesnake) for her friends in the Missoula International School. Additionally, many believe that Rehbein also ran in order to permanently secure Roosevelt School for the private school, St. Josephs. In documents brought to light in the Good Schools Missoula lawsuit against the district it was revealed that the private school had recommended pro-sale trustees to their congregation in the past. In other words, the three trusttes, Rehbein, Toth, and Bixler could have been elected to the MCPS Board by the private schools. This could happen again as Missoula International School supporters will most likely vote for Bixler and Toth. BEWARE THE PRIVATE SCHOOL VOTE!!

Fighting 4 Missoula
Fighting 4 Missoula

It is my belief that Toni Rehbein is one of the most corrupt trustees that has ever sat on the Board of Missoula County Public Schools.

The conflict on the Board which is mentioned in the beginning of the article stems from a couple of trustees and administers who wished to go against the public's wishes time and time again so that if anyone stood up to them there was he** to pay. So Toni, Joe, and Scott were elected, and things went smoother for the few trustees because there were fewer trustees to fight for the public's good.

If there were ever to be an investigation into all the wrongs committed by Toni Rehbein I'm sure there would be a long list.

As I am short of time I will mention what I believe to be the most aggregious of her travesties she has inflicted on Missoulians. That is the lease of Prescott School to the Missoula International School.

The most important item on the agend of her first Board Meeting in May of 2004 was the lease Prescott/MIS lease issue. Right off the bat, Rehbein stated that the lease needed to be rushed. And that we needed to take advantage of the "bird hand" (paraphrasing). She wished to offer a friendly amendment to expedite the process.

Why is the above important? Something which she failed to mention in the first meeting - she was the president for two years and the vice president for one year (thus an officer of Missoula International School shortly before running for the MCPS Board.

She did not vote for the lease in June of 2004, however, she continued to advocate for the lease throughout her time on the Board. She once queried the MIS people during a meeting if they weuld be interested in leasing Prescott School with an option to buy. She once advocated for an appraisal of Prescott as the district had so many other price tags on other projects.

Due to this conflict of interest issue (the lawyer says that it isn't one - only that it appears to be) Missoulians are subsidizing what has become an eltite privata school. MIS had 33 children enrolled in the school in 2004 - now it has 186! Loses to the district have been estimated to be in the $500,000 range PER YEAR!

The Prescott School/Missoula International School in addition to the selling of Roosevelt have been the sorry and tragic legacy of one fo the most corrupt trustees ever to serve on the Board of MIssoula County Public Schools. I could spend many more hours listing the harm she has done to MIssoula, however, will end with one more- adding the International Baccalaulreate Program (it just so happens that MIS is an IB school). This most certainly helps her friends at MIS doesn't it as the MIS children can now continue their IB studies at Hellgate High School - courtesy of the Missoula taxpayers!

Fighting 4 Missoula
Fighting 4 Missoula

I would like to apologize for my many typographical errors - oops! I had to go to work - but I just had to put in my two cents before I left. This woman has caused me so much grief (and all Missoulians - some are just unaware of the damage she has done).

hellgatenights
hellgatenights

Rehbein is joining Baucus in the "I don't really want to defend my poor judgement and fiscal irresponsibility" train.

Betsy cohen smeared alot of frosting on the "Cabbage cake" for Rehbein's farewell. Like the dedicated democrat she is, Cohen cannot see the forest for the trees and is stuck on fantasy island (Along with Mayor Pork Chop and Fred Van Coward).

Rehbein is part of this self proclaimed "elite Dynasty" here in Missoula. You can always spot a team member because they are all fiscal morons, they are progressives, and they don;t care two bits about the middle class, until it it time to beg for monies with a mill levy.

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