Three seats on the Missoula County Public Schools board will be on the ballot this spring, with two incumbent trustees planning to run again.
The K-12 seats held by Heidi Kendall and Jennifer Newbold are on the ballot, as well as the high school seat representing the Seeley Lake region currently held by Debbie Dupree.
As of Wednesday, no candidates had filed for the three seats.
Kendall and Newbold, both rounding out their first term, said they'll run again.
Dupree plans to step away after 15 years of service – and somewhere around 50,000 miles on her car.
Dupree's seat includes Seeley-Swan High, as well as the Clinton, Potomac, Sunset and Swan Valley districts.
"That's 120 miles round-trip. I don't want to jinx myself because I have a couple of months left and I've only been pulled over once, and so far I've never hit anything," Dupree said, laughing.
She hopes a Seeley Lake candidate steps up to the plate.
"I just feel that it's very important that Seeley Lake is represented," she said. "I know that the district covers clear to Clinton and Potomac, but those kids all end up going to Hellgate. They don't come here."
When Dupree first ran, she had kids in school. Today, they're adults and Dupree wants time to spend with her grandchildren. She also owns NAPA Auto Parts in Seeley Lake.
She's happy to see the improvements made to Seeley-Swan High over the years, from a new gym floor and remodeling the library when she first came on the board in 2002 to the recent auditorium addition thanks to the November 2015 bond passage.
"All our kids have expressed that they would like more electives, and that's super hard to do with our enrollment," Dupree said. "But they are still able to take their college credits. My daughter came out with 13 or 14 college credits.
"It's one of those things (where) you have to weigh the pros and cons of a big school versus small schools. Here, Dr. (Kathleen) Pecora knows every child very well. It's just the difference between an AA and a C school. It's a little more personal."
She said she's enjoyed most of her time on the board.
"For me, some days it's very rewarding and some days you feel very underappreciated," she said. "It's not like some boards where you're paid to be on it; this is all volunteer.
"It's time for someone else with a fresh perspective to take a turn."
Kendall hasn't filed yet, but said she will.
The former city council member hit a wall years ago when she reached out to board members about school start times.
"The response I got was pitiful," she said. "I thought, this isn't right.
"A huge part of (a council member's) job is listening to constituents' concerns and bringing those to people."
Kendall is one of the more vocal trustees – vocal in the sense that she asks a lot of questions. That's one of the key roles of a school board, she said: keeping an eye on the details.
With the $158 million in school bonds leading to construction projects at every school this year and in the coming years, she said being a watchdog is especially important.
Kendall and Newbold both said that with Superintendent Mark Thane at the helm, they've seen a positive change in the district. Dupree said all three superintendents that have served while she's been a trustee – Thane, Alex Apostle and Jim Clark – "served the district well."
A trusting relationship between the school board and the superintendent, in addition to strong leadership, is important now more than ever, Kendall said.
"We have to protect public education from outside sources, both in Helena and Washington, D.C.," she said. "There are some threats to public education we have to defend against. We have to make sure the people who pay for public education are getting a good return on their investment."
The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pension approved Betsy DeVos' nomination for education secretary on Tuesday, moving it to the Senate floor for a confirmation vote. The billionaire has faced intense criticism for her longstanding advocacy for school choice and vouchers.
Montana has its first Republican superintendent of public instruction in nearly 30 years in former legislator Elsie Arntzen. She has faced opposition from teachers unions, in particular MEA-MFT, which called her voting record "deplorable."
"We can't predict how it's going to go in the Legislature," Kendall said. "Money is always an issue. You can't do public education without money."
About 64 percent of school districts' general fund comes from the state, according to the Office of Public Instruction.
"We're at the mercy of the Legislature," Kendall said.
Newbold said she will likely run again, though she hasn't made "a firm decision" yet.
"I really love doing all of the work associated with it," she said. "People always laugh that it's a thankless job, but you're not in it for thanks, you're in it because it's fulfilling and you love to do it. I think I probably will run again because all of those things held true from the time I started until now."
Newbold, an attorney for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has two kids in MCPS, and another who's not old enough for school yet.
"I just saw a need for that type of voice on the board," she said, as well as a passion to help teachers. That means professional development. MCPS implemented professional learning communities several years ago, time set aside for teachers to work together on issues in their classrooms.
"It's a really nice model for teacher collaboration and professional development opportunities, but I'm always on the lookout for ways we can help support them more meaningfully and more comprehensively," she said.
There's a steep learning curve on a school board; the education world is a complex one, particularly a district such as MCPS with a wide variety of programs, and budgeting in Montana's complicated funding system.
"You spend the first year getting your feet under you and you start hitting your stride in the third year," Newbold said. "It would be a shame to see all that go to waste."
Newbold is keyed in on three issues in the district's near future: fiscal responsibility in the bond projects, budgeting amid proposed state budget cuts, and parity of programs districtwide.
She would like to see students all have access to the same opportunities, similar in fashion to the Spark! arts program and Project Lead The Way's STEM efforts.
"We have some really excellent opportunities at some schools that aren't readily available at other schools," she said.
She referenced language opportunities and International Baccalaureate, which are available at some schools but not all.
"Those are not small undertakings, they're not without cost, I clearly recognize that. But what I've observed of the International Baccalaureate program at the elementary and high school level is it's a really remarkable approach to teaching and to learning," she said. "I know it's a process and it's not a short process for a school to go through to get to that point, but I think it would be good to offer that approach to all students."