HAMILTON - When people talk of school administration these days, the topic of consolidating duties quickly follows.
As it happens, Ravalli County, with its seven school districts, got into the consolidation business more than 25 years ago by folding the elected county superintendent of schools post into the county clerk and recorder's office.
So Regina Plettenberg is Ravalli County's elected superintendent of schools - and its clerk and recorder.
And the schools portion of her post is contracted out.
Ernie Jean is the man working the contracted part-time job that is Ravalli County superintendent of schools. The post and the man are a mystery to many, even within the Bitterroot education community.
"I saw that someone commented (online) that I make $100,000," Jean said. "If that was true, I'd probably be the highest paid employee in Ravalli County."
Jean, who generally has office hours at the county administration building one day a week, makes $28,800 over the course of his two-year contract. And Plettenberg said he's worth every penny.
"Ernie is so good, we are lucky to have him," Plettenberg said. "He's been a coach, a teacher, a principal, a superintendent - he's done it all - and he brings that experience with him into that position."
After putting in 32 years as a teacher and administrator, primarily in eastern Montana, Jean earned his doctorate in school administration from the University of Montana, then spent eight years (1988-1996) as superintendent of schools at the Florence-Carlton district, during which there was a jump in enrollment from 545 to 970 students.
Jean said his previous experience in the county helps him relate to current administrators from the Bitterroot's seven school districts.
In all, Jean's job entails performing duties listed in 26 points within his contract, ranging from administering oaths to school district trustees to keeping records on school audits to tracking the registration of teachers' certification paperwork.
Jean, who has been the part-time county superintendent since 2001, has a contract through June 2011.
Ravalli County combined its school superintendent and clerk and recorder positions in 1982.
In 1984, Greg Danelz was hired as the first contract superintendent of schools. Ever since, the superintendent position has been contracted out and the elected clerk and recorder/superintendent of schools has focused solely on clerk and recorder, Plettenberg said.
By law, the county superintendent must be certified in teaching or school administration.
"I'm not qualified to do that job and perform the check that Ernie does with the schools," Plettenberg said.
Plettenberg is not fazed by the fact that Jean resides in Missoula because he brings his Ravalli County administrative experience and a Ph.D. to bear on the work. With Jean, the quality is there, she said.
And, since a full-time administrator would likely have a departmental budget, the contractor position that Jean fills is "cheaper than if (county superintendent) was elected," Plettenberg said. "It's worked. We haven't shorted the taxpayers or the schools."
Darrel Rud, executive director of School Administrators of Montana, said the idea of saving money by reducing the county superintendent position has been a hot topic.
"It's being looked at by nearly every county in the state as to whether that's an efficient model," Rud said.
In Flathead County, discussion of consolidating and contracting the county superintendent post reached a county commission vote in January. But with a state-high 23 school districts, commissioners voted to shelve the idea.
Jean said he thought Ravalli County had been one of the first in Montana to fold the superintendent's job into another department and contract out the portions that require a certified teacher or school administrator.
In places with a lot of rural school districts - some are still functioning as de facto one-room schoolhouses - the centralized county superintendent is an indispensable job, Jean said.
Duby Santee, superintendent for Hamilton schools, agrees. Santee, who worked a combined teaching-administrative job with a rural district in Flathead County, said he leaned heavily on the county superintendent.
"For me, in that position, the county superintendent was vital because I didn't have anyone else to turn to get the help I needed," Santee said.
But Ravalli County is different. Only two districts - Victor and Lone Rock - don't employ full-time superintendents. In addition to making sure that budgets meet inspection, Jean is the county schools' liaison for dealing with state and federal education administrators and sits in charge of county transportation.
Santee said he thought the part-time county superintendent role worked here. "I think it works very well for us," Santee said. "That position just kind of serves as a watchdog and makes sure the districts are doing what they're supposed to be doing and getting the paperwork in that they're supposed to. And it's nice to have that person there to keep track."
Reporter Sepp Jannotta can be reached at 363-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.