Twenty-five years ago, an unemployed former teacher took a job she knew nothing about.

"Zero idea. None."

Rachel Vielleux jumped in blind, completely unaware that she would be a judge, a school boss, a negotiator, a lobbyist, an accountant, a paper-pusher, a data collector, an evaluator and, most important of all, a living, breathing encyclopedia of education law.

That was a quarter-century ago, when Vielleux first accepted the post of Missoula County superintendent of schools.

Today, Vielleux is at the sunset of her career, and for the first time in six election cycles, her name will not appear on the November ballot, where it sat unchallenged all that time.

Is she retiring?

"No," Vielleux answered quickly. "I just didn't run this time."

***

Rachel Vielleux has done her share of running, but never for office.

In a county that has 13 separate school districts, she has been a blur for 25 years, bouncing from school to school in every corner of the county as the go-to authority for everything from school budgets to student expulsions to federal education law.

Never once has anyone filed to challenge her. And Vielleux, who has held the position as a Democrat, said that's fortunate - she would have dropped out immediately if anyone had.

"If anyone filed against me, I would not run - not against anyone," said Vielleux, who will be a lame-duck county superintendent after Tuesday's election. Two Missoula educators are vying for the position: Erin Lipkind, a 36-year-old librarian at Lewis and Clark Elementary, and George Linthicum, a 62-year-old longtime teacher and administrator.

The winner will take office on Jan. 1, a day Vielleux is looking forward to, but a day others are dreading.

"If you have a question, you call Rachel," said Mark Latrielle, superintendent of the Clinton school district. "She has a wealth of knowledge about funding and the law. ... I'm not going to be able to pick up the phone and say, ‘I remember something that happened in '86. Now, what was that statute?' "

Without fail, say administrators across the county, Vielleux had the answer, the advice, the paperwork, the know-how, the contacts. And above all, a mind like a steel trap, a memory like a sponge.

"We won't have the history," said Mike Magone, superintendent in Lolo. "We're never going to get that back. Neither of the candidates - and it's not their fault - can bring that history to the table."

***

So what is this position, the Missoula County superintendent of schools?

For starters, it is not Alex Apostle, superintendent of the Missoula County Public Schools district.

That is a very common public misconception. And what makes it worse is the word "Public" in the MCPS name - which is a relic of the days when MCPS was two separate districts. In fact, far fewer than half of Missoula County's students are enrolled in MCPS.

There's Missoula Catholic Schools. And DeSmet. And Clinton. And Swan Valley. And Woodman. And Bonner. And Valley Christian. And Potomac. And legions of home-schooled children.

And there's Rachel Vielleux, who oversees them all, who is the de facto superintendent of five tiny districts that aren't big enough to have one, who runs school board meetings for some and does teacher evaluations for others and applies for federal grants and makes sure the private schools adhere to education laws and sits as a judge in expulsion hearings and teacher firings and who lobbies the state Legislature and files all of the school data with the state Office of Public Instruction and the federal government.

All of it adds up to the first lesson that Vielleux learned after accepting the job in 1985: "It has almost nothing to do with education."

For better or worse, American education is a tangled morass of laws and regulations. Those feeling brave can begin navigating the state OPI website at www.opi.mt.gov, assuming they have a few hours to kill.

And they might begin to appreciate the difficulty of Vielleux's job: Have it all memorized, and apply it to school districts ranging in size from an enrollment of one (Sunset) to an enrollment of 8,400 (MCPS).

It is simply too much for the little districts to handle - especially the ones that have no superintendent.

Like DeSmet.

Joe Halligan, a 10-year educator, is in his first year as principal for the 150-student school district. Doing his job effectively would be overwhelming if he had to pull double-duty as superintendent.

"The one thing I can tell you from the viewpoint of a guy who's new in this role is that she's been nothing but helpful," said Halligan, who oversees a staff of 25. "Any time I've needed anything, Rachel has been there to answer my questions."

Most of those questions have been of the legal variety, he said: student conduct, interaction with teachers, the rules and responsibilities of the school board.

It's one thing to learn school administration in graduate school, and quite another to apply it on the ground.

"Things were cropping up weekly for sure, if not daily," he said. "Until you're really here in the trenches, it's difficult to know how those things work out in the real world."

***

Magone of the Lolo district said Vielleux brings "reality to the job."

That's because, said Vielleux, reality first came to her.

Vielleux grew up in Fort Benton, earned her degree in biological sciences from the University of Montana before getting her master's degree in elementary curriculum, then taught for six years in Hamilton and Lolo.

After that stint, she went to work for an advertising agency, and was an account executive for six years before leaving that job in 1985.

That's when the job of county superintendent of schools opened up - as the previous superintendent left. And Vielleux was looking for work.

"I was sort of, as they say, in between jobs," she said. "That is to say, unemployed."

Barbara Evans, then a Missoula County commissioner, appointed her to the post - and told her she would have to register with a political party (that rule is a peculiarity of Missoula County law, and not one favored by Vielleux or the two candidates now running).

"Barbara said, ‘Rachel, you cannot sit the fence on this one,' " Vielleux remembered.

She registered as a Democrat, but said one's political views have nothing at all to do with the job.

One's work ethic, intelligence and ability to keep from pulling out one's hair are core requirements.

It got so overwhelming one day that Vielleux composed her resignation letter, but was talked out of quitting. "You CAN'T quit," she was told.

"The thing that has nearly chased me off the most are the requirements for data input, which have nothing to do with education but sap my time and my energy," she said.

State and federal education laws and regulations have gotten enormously complicated, especially with No Child Left Behind, she said. The problem is that most laws are written as if every district were the same - blanket rules that simply do not translate to small schools.

"You cannot write a computer program to fit everyone," said Vielleux. "So you write one for the big ones, and then dumb it down for the small ones."

***

Getting them to fit requires creativity, a lot of mileage on the car, and the help of an assistant Vielleux calls "the queen of everything."

That person is Kella With Horn, who has been Vielleux's administrative aide for two years - and is also leaving her job this year.

With Horn was hired to replace two people when the office budget shrank.

"Rachel has been one of the best people I've ever worked for in my entire career, and I've had a lot of different jobs," said With Horn, who is taking an administrative job with the Crow-Creek Indian Reservation in South Dakota as a liaison to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "When you work for someone like that, you want to do better for them."

"Aide" is far too lightweight a word for what With Horn does, said Vielleux: She keeps a database of all teachers in the county, creates district reports, tracks every home-schooled child, keeps track of every district budget, and helps districts set the mill rate for levies.

For starters.

Her job speaks to the enormous responsibilities of the office in general. And every phone call is a spin of the Roulette wheel.

"I am mistaken by callers as the top of everything, and some people get really mad," said Vielleux. "I tell them that I am on top of nothing."

No, she's not. She's on top of it all.

"Missoula County," said Halligan, of DeSmet, "is going to be at a loss without her."

Vielleux has bought herself a piano to rekindle her musical talents, and plans to work in her garden and take more classes at UM.

Her advice for the winner of the Nov. 2 election?

Vielleux shared a sly smile that hinted of a warning.

"Enjoy it."

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

 

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