THOMPSON FALLS – Jerry Pauli is retiring as superintendent of schools here, for approximately the third time in three years.
This time, he means it.
Of course, what he’ll fill his days with after July 1, when he finally does step down, Pauli has no idea.
“There hasn’t been a day I haven’t enjoyed getting up and going to work,” Pauli says. “As long as you love to come in, why would you want to retire? I’ve never gotten to that point. In 47 years, I have not missed five days. I feel like I’ve never worked a day in my life.”
Of course, he’s usually the first person to get to school in the morning, arriving in his office by 6:45 a.m., and the last one to leave at night. If there’s a school concert or athletic event in the evening or on a weekend, that’s where you’ll find Pauli, even if it means him driving a couple of hundred miles to watch the high school volleyball team in a road match.
“If you’re a superintendent, you live behind a computer,” Pauli says. “I have to be around kids. Going to their after-school activities is my adrenaline juice.”
Pauli’s first “retirement” came two years ago, when he voluntarily took a $60,000-a-year pay cut, went to part-time status – in name only – and was allowed to begin to access his Montana retirement to supplement his income, while remaining as superintendent.
His salary is now approximately $12,000 a year less than the average Thompson Falls teacher earns.
Pauli used the savings from his reduced salary to better fund the Thompson Falls Science Olympiad and softball programs, among other things.
It was supposed to be a one-year arrangement but, well, he’s always found a reason to stay on, and the board has 20 years’ worth of reasons to keep him. The high school now also has new bleachers because of the money the school district has saved by Pauli continuing as superintendent at the reduced salary.
But his wife, Colleen, retired last year. Between them, they have six children and six grandchildren – all granddaughters, and all living out of state.
Somewhat reluctantly, Pauli says, it’s time. He’ll be 68 when he steps down.
“I want to see what God has in store for me,” he says, and when a recent guest at their church was describing work being done in Argentina, Pauli turned to Colleen and said, “Wouldn’t it be awesome to go down there?”
Pauli once dreamed of leading one of the state’s largest school districts, in Billings or Missoula, but now is glad his career was spent in Cut Bank, Ronan, Thermopolis, Wyo., and – for the past 20 years – in Thompson Falls.
“Between them all, there aren’t two stoplights,” Pauli says, “and there’s not one stoplight in all of Sanders County. This is where I was meant to be. It took a lifetime to figure that out.”
Pauli leads a unique school district in a county that often leads the state in unemployment. At Thompson Falls High School, one-third of the 187 students are from 22 other states, all troubled teens that have been sent by their parents to live in one of Sanders County’s several group homes.
“Without them, we’d be a Class C school,” Pauli says. “They’re mostly kids from affluent families who have struggled or failed in other settings. But they’re very bright kids. We have a 94 percent graduation rate. And it’s good for our kids, who are exposed to different beliefs and ideas.”
He’s extremely fortunate, Pauli says, in that he works for a school board that understands its role, which Pauli says is to set policies for the district, hire the best superintendent they can – something the Thompson Falls district is now in the process of doing for the first time in two decades – and let him or her do their job.
“Too many school boards nowadays are trying to do the superintendent’s job,” Pauli says. “Too many of them try to micromanage, especially at the (Class) AA level. Boards need to set policy and hire the best superintendent they can. The superintendent needs to carry out the policies and hire the best principals they can, and let the principals hire the best teachers they can.”
That might be the tamest of the opinions Pauli has after 47 years in education.
“The biggest fraud in education is the importance of math,” Pauli says, “and I’m a math teacher.”
He’s not talking addition and subtraction.
“Look at Stanford, Yale, Harvard – none of them require math once you’re in, but they all want you to have advanced algebra to get in,” he says. “Once you’re there, you don’t have to take it.”
He’s also not talking about students who go on to study something like engineering.
“I know the importance of math to math people,” Pauli says. “But my daughter is a doctor. She had to take math, and she’s never used it since. Why did she need to take calculus to be a doctor? We’re not helping students learn to balance a checkbook, but we’re forcing them into algebra classes they’ll never use.”
School curriculums need to adjust to reach kinesthetic learners, Pauli says. Tailoring curriculums to the very best and brightest students, he adds, is done at the expense of all other students – and, eventually, at the expense of society.
The true value of public education, he says, can be measured in how much it accomplishes with the bottom two-thirds of students, not the top one-third.
That’s one reason Pauli, a self-described conservative Christian, opposes charter schools.
Charter schools, he says, pull the best and brightest students and teachers – not to mention government funding – away from public schools.
What happens to the students who are left, and the quality of education they’ll then receive?
“Who’s going to end up on entitlements when they become adults?” Pauli asks. “In America, we believe in educating every child. Charter schools will not work in the long run.”
The superintendent is disgusted by politicians and pundits who repeatedly claim that America’s educational system is failing, or Montana’s schools are failing.
That schools can always be improved is a far cry from being able to claim they have failed, Pauli says.
“Our biggest problem in Montana, education-wise, is that our professional organizations do a terrible job of letting people know how well we’re actually doing,” Pauli says. “Our students test among the top four or five states in the country. Why do these people claim we’re failing?
“Society may be failing, the family structure may be failing, but we’ve never had better teachers than we have right now. Nowadays, we know how kids learn, and there are no limits to what they can learn with good teachers and the technology available. There’s so much potential. It’s a great time to enter the field.”
And if the U.S. education system is in such a mess, Pauli wonders, why is it that students from other nations – including countries where students allegedly are more proficient in a host of subjects – flock to America to pursue their college educations, and not the other way around?
Pauli grew up in Valier, a small town on the eastern front of the Rockies, later moved to Kalispell with his family and graduated from Flathead High School in 1963.
He started college at the University of San Francisco, but transferred to the University of Montana, where he received his degree. His first teaching job, in Cut Bank, lasted only half a year.
With a low lottery number in the draft, Pauli enlisted in the service. He had a brother already deployed to Vietnam, so Pauli was stationed in Germany.
When he came home, Pauli was hired in Ronan, where he spent 14 years and eventually became middle school principal. His 14 years there were marred by the death of identical twin sons, Sean Michael and Marshall Franklin, both lost to cancer by the time they were 18 months old.
“It was tragic, surprising,” Pauli says. “I was young and in denial. I didn’t cry, we held no funeral, I didn’t grieve. It took more than a decade for me to deal with the loss.”
One of his sons, Michael Franklin Pauli, carries the twins’ middle names.
Pauli moved from Ronan to Thermopolis, Wyo., a place he says he applied only because he’s a Superman fan, and the name Thermopolis reminded him of Metropolis. He also interviewed for jobs in Missoula and Livingston before deciding on the Wyoming post.
“It was an oil-rich district, lots of money for the schools, a great place to be,” Pauli says, and he stayed for nine years before deciding it was time to come home to Montana.
He applied for three superintendent openings, interviewed in Lolo (where he was the board’s second choice) and Thompson Falls, which offered him the job.
He then withdrew his name at Bigfork.
Thompson Falls has been a wonderful place for him, the superintendent says. He calls it “a blessing” to work in a school district “where you can still have Christmas concerts and you can still use the word God.”
“It took me a long time to understand the belief system here,” he goes on. “Most people here are conservative, but their belief in individual rights trumps their conservatism. They’ll accept anyone, and support your right to have a different belief system than theirs.”
Pauli has built an experienced and loyal faculty and staff in Thompson Falls, and become known for finding money for the schools in his economically deprived district in the unlikeliest of places.
Taking it out of his own paycheck is just the latest.
He once hired a retired music teacher to teach choir at Spring Creek Academy, a now-closed private institution for troubled out-of-state teens that otherwise had its own education classes for a large student population.
“We had 120 kids in our choir at Spring Creek, and by law at that time, were able to count them each as one-half a student on our ANB (average number belonging) figures,” Pauli says.
They were enrolled at Thompson Falls High School for purposes of the choir class but never set foot on the TFHS campus. The high school still had its own choir.
It meant an extra $360,000 a year from the state for the district, until the Montana Legislature changed the law and closed the loophole.
“You just have to be abreast of the law, and work within it,” Pauli says. “I’m constantly on the phone to our attorney and OPI (the Office of Public Instruction).”
He has no qualms about any of it.
“It may not be best for you, it may not be best for me, but if it’s best for the kids, then I’m fine with it,” Pauli says. “I can sleep fine at night if the decisions I make are in the best interests of our students.”
Reporter Vince Devlin covers Lake and Sanders counties for the Missoulian. He can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photography editor Kurt Wilson can be reached at (406) 523-5270 or by email at email@example.com.