Mark Thane

Mark Thane

While most of the meeting focused on Mark Thane's work leading Missoula County Public Schools, concerns about federal and state funding following last week's election bled into the conversation.

On Thursday night, MCPS trustees met to begin the process of superintendent Thane's annual evaluation. At their Dec. 13 meeting, trustees will turn in the evaluation tool and, in executive session, conduct his formal evaluation.

Trustees Debbie Dupree, Ann Wake, Korbin Bragstad and Heidi Kendall were absent.

"I want to be very clear that although I've listed a number of things in each section (of the evaluation tool), they're not things for which I can take credit," Thane said. "In every sense of the word, this is a team effort.

"I'll use a lot of 'we's' tonight. Without the collective capacity we have in this district, none of these could be accomplished. I'm a little self-conscious to say this is what I've done."

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Thane took the helm in June 2015, a few months after previous superintendent Alex Apostle announced he would be leaving the district at the end of the school year.

Thane lost the interim title and became official in February with a three-year contract.

On Thursday, he described work being done in each of the 10 standards in the evaluation tool: leadership and district culture, policy and governance, communications and community relations, organizational management, curriculum planning development, instructional leadership, human resources management, values and ethics of leadership, student achievement and learning, and labor relations.

One of the biggest challenges Thane said he's faced was first taking on the campaign to get the Smart Schools 2020 bond passed in November 2015 with just a few months as superintendent under his belt – and then tackling the mountain of construction projects once the $158 million in bonds passed.

Amidst all that, Thane said it's been important for the No. 1 focus to remain on student achievement. He attributes part of the success to the administrative restructuring earlier this year (nixing one of the three executive regional director positions and turning it into director of teaching and learning).

"It's important to be an active listener," Thane said. In town hall meetings at each building, "I hope the attribute I displayed is I can be a very active listener, take to heart what I hear and let that inform what we do in the district."

He didn't make any remarks on the values and ethics standard, leaving that entirely to the trustees.

"I've been a lifelong resident in this community, so it's important to me personally that I discharge my responsibilities with integrity ... because I intend to live in this community the rest of my life," he said.

After running through all 10 standards in the evaluation, trustee Diane Lorenzen had a question: "Do you have any concerns in the district?"

Thane does, though right now what concerns him most is not internal.

"Part of it is legislative, part is uncertainty with the changing administration at the federal level, but also in the Office of Public Instruction," he said.

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The U.S. will have a new president in Republican Donald Trump, and for the first time in nearly three decades, a Republican will lead Montana's OPI: Elsie Arntzen.

"Federally, we have concerns about whether or not the Carl Perkins grants will continue," Thane said of the career and technical education grants. "That's several hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in career-technical education programs."

He said in a meeting recently with U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, the Democrat indicated that Perkins funding "could be in significant jeopardy from the federal government."

Thane is also worried about a federal class size reduction grant being cut, the Title IIA grant. Currently, that funds nine elementary and three high school teachers in MCPS.

"To think of assuming the responsibility in the general fund for additional staff positions would be significant," he said.

To that end, Thane and the district's financial team are working on three-year budget projections "if the rug is pulled out from under us."

While Gov. Steve Bullock laid out an inflationary increase for state special education funding, Thane said "anything that carries a fiscal note is going to be a challenge to get through the Legislature." Bullock also proposed $12 million for preschool, an effort that's failed in the past. Thane said regardless of what happens there, MCPS is planning for preschool at some point.

Last school year, MCPS had an unexpected increase of 12 para educators for students with special needs. This year, there have already been 10 additions.

From 1990 to 2014, special education expenses statewide grew more than threefold: from $40.9 million to $131.2 million.

The state's share of that funding has dropped – from 82 percent to 33 percent. Locals have filled the gap – from 7 percent to 41 percent.

"It's significant and very necessary support, but we don't have the funding that goes with it," Thane said.

Thane is working to put together a board committee on legislation.

"It's important that we as a collective body talk about how the district wants to engage and respond to legislation," he said.

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Reporter for the Missoulian