A sea of fuming, bewildered and perplexed faces waited for the gavel to fall Tuesday night, eager to get on with the business of pasting Missoula school officials with everything from mild rebukes to insults.
And they did, four full hours' worth, teachers and janitors and para-educators directing pent-up wrath at their own school board over its decision to give Superintendent Alex Apostle a hefty raise.
But first, there would be a public apology from a board trustee, and some uproarious applause from the teachers themselves.
The latter came in response to Missoula County Public Schools trustee Adam Duerk, who spoke about the need to compensate hard work.
"Maybe," he said, "we should have taken that first step with the teachers."
It was a fleeting moment of good will that died with the applause, because the next four hours were rough.
But first, trustee Nancy Pickhardt, who two weeks ago left a profane and angry message on the answering machine of a school board critic, read from a prepared statement.
"I made a big mistake and I deeply regret my actions," she said. "... I ask Dr. Apostle, my fellow board members, the employees of the Missoula County Public Schools and members of this community for forgiveness for my inappropriate actions and language."
Most of the comments were reserved for the board as a whole.
"The timing of this is demoralizing," said Missoula Education Association president Dave Severson, whose union represents MCPS' teachers. "It's created a lot of hard feelings."
In July, the board awarded Apostle with a raise of nearly $15,000, plus increases in benefits, which include $1,000 a month for use of his car. The same year, teachers, classified staff and para-educators received a half-percent raise in their base salary, which is applied before "steps and lanes" increases based on years in the district and further education.
A parade of teachers and other employees called Apostle's raise an insult and heavily divisive, especially as the economy continues to falter. A few pleaded for the superintendent to give it back.
"The historical relevance of the times makes the timing of this unbelievable," said Steve Pinsoneault, a former MCPS teacher who now works in Frenchtown.
A handful of others said they felt intimidated by Apostle and the school board, even fearing for their jobs for speaking up.
"For me to be up here is way out of my comfort zone," said Kim Butler, who teaches at Meadow Hill Middle School. "I personally feel deceived, betrayed and disappointed."
Big Sky High School teacher Mike Marcinkowski said the raise is particularly insulting because district employees were initially offered no raise at all while secretaries and para-educators are paid so little.
"I can deal with a half-percent raise," he said. "I know times are tough. ... But their pay is ridiculous. What I don't hear tonight is any happy people, people saying, ‘Woo hoo! Wow! You got a 10 percent raise!' "
Some who testified told Pickhardt that they thought her apology was sincere and that they forgave her; others called for her to step down.
"Your apology is not sufficient," said Carol Bellin. "I think you need to face up to the consequences, restore the ‘trust' in ‘trustee' and resign."
Neither Pickhardt nor Apostle spoke during the evening, and the board members were also silent.
But earlier, some board members defended Apostle's raise, and had a few words for their colleague Nancy Pickhardt.
Scott Bixler said he was impressed when he first met Apostle as a candidate for the job two years ago.
"Dr. Apostle was an intense person," he said. "He still is. He has a vision. And that struck me and has stayed with me."
Apostle is spearheading major initiatives and is a change agent who has the best interest of students at heart and works hours unheard of for school administrators, they said.
Trustee Drake Lemm said he accepted Pickhardt's apology, and said she is one of the most dedicated trustees he's ever worked with.
"She is a strong advocate for your children," he said. "It's pretty obvious that she let her passions get the best of her in this situation."