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.’ ”