After 15 years, Mike Kupilik voted off board

Five times Mike Kupilik ran for Missoula school trustee and five times he won.

On Tuesday that winning streak ended with his sixth election bid, but Kupilik, whose 15 years of volunteer service was one of the longest stints on the MCPS board, actually wasn't so surprised he lost.

"I had it in the back of my mind that it was a pretty strong possibility," he said. "I've been chair of the board through six years of cuts. Whether it is my fault or not, it is a hard thing to overcome."

"I didn't make the situation, but I certainly was there," he said.

Kupilik, 57, and fellow incumbent Jan Guffin, 46, lost in Tuesday's school elections. Voters replaced them with a new slate of candidates who ran on a call for change.

"The opposition to me was organized, without a doubt," Kupilik said.

Kupilik is no stranger to controversy. When he contemplated his fifth bid for trustee back in 1998, he faced one of his greatest challenges to that date as chairman. He helped direct the board as it tried to balance an elementary budget $800,000 in the hole and considered the possible closure of one or more neighborhood K-5 schools.

That crisis didn't push Kupilik into retirement. He chose to run again and won, only to face an even greater challenge in school funding as enrollments continued to decline. The board has since closed two neighborhood schools and is slated to shut down Prescott Elementary School at the end of this school year.

Trustees this year also grappled with the prospect of making more than $1 million in budget cuts if the mill levies had failed Tuesday.

These recent events represented low points in Kupilik's time as trustee.

"I took no pleasure in closing a school," Kupilik said Wednesday. "It was necessary, but very sad. It was also sad about the way it split the community."

He recalled about eight years ago when Jake Block, then superintendent of the elementary district before unification, approached him and suggested he might need to think about closing a school.

"I was horrified and told him, 'Not on my watch,' " Kupilik said.

A year or so later, enrollment dropped further, the district faced even tougher funding issues and the idea of school closures reared again, he said.

The closing of neighborhood schools played out as a major issue in Tuesday's election, Kupilik said. In interviews Tuesday, most of the other seated school board members agreed.

With the addition of the two new board members, Colleen Rogers and David Merrill, and the re-election of Suzette Dussault, Kupilik said he expects that the dynamics of the elementary district board will change. Board members who once voted with the majority will now be a minority.

"I think they (the new members) will find it fairly easy to get a four-vote majority on elementary issues," he said.

But their campaign promises will cost money, and there isn't any money, said Kupilik, a professor of economics at University of Montana who specializes in public finance.

Living up to those promises will be one of their most difficult challenges, he said, especially if the board reconsiders the decision to close Prescott School.

"Eventually, reality will rear its ugly head," Kupilik said. "Simply saying there is money in the budget over and over again doesn't make it so."

Asked what he would advise as a veteran of the board, Kupilik said he hopes the new board will not alienate the administrative staff.

"Try to take their advice, especially if they are new on the board," he said. "It's a learning process."

With his own term as trustee soon to expire, Kupilik said he is not sorry to see it come to an end.

"I have a lot of good memories," he said. "I worked with a number of really wonderful people. We didn't always agree, but we got the problem solved and moved ahead. The process itself had a lot of rewards in it."

Highlights to his career include successful efforts to get a new library at Russell School and the district's adoption of a math curriculum that appeals to more students.

"I was interested in math and how it was taught," he said.

And when the district wasn't in a cutting mode, Kupilik said, board members worked hard at improving relationships with teachers.

Kupilik said he doesn't expect to have much to do with K-12 school issues in the future, although he may delve into a research project that looks at the causal relationships between school funding and test scores. Other than that, he said, he expects to move on to something different.

Wednesday morning he went through his calendar, scratched off upcoming school-related meetings and marveled at the time commitments he had made.

He expects he'll regain 15 to 20 hours a week.

"It's time for me to do something else," he said.

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