Candidates who promised change elected

Voters gave the nod to a changing of the guard on the Missoula County Public Schools board Tuesday, ousting two longtime incumbents and electing a slate of candidates who called for a change in how the school board does business.

David Merrill and Colleen Rogers defeated incumbents Mike Kupilik and Jan Guffin in moderate voter turnout Tuesday. Kupilik, a seasoned veteran, had served on the board for 15 years and was chairman. Guffin was seeking her third term.

Voters retained incumbent Suzette Dussault for a second term.

Final, unofficial results were: Dussault, 4,715; Rogers, 4,650; Merrill, 4,057; Guffin, 3,842; and Kupilik, 3,199.

Dussault, 52, a Lone Rock Elementary teacher, called the results wonderful news. She said she looks forward to working with the community, parents, administration and teachers to improve schools.

"They wanted a board that would work with the community to achieve that," she said of the election results. "I also think there needs to be a discussion about what we really want our schools to look like and define what are our priorities.

"When fine arts is always on the chopping block and teachers are always being cut - that's the heart and soul of our schools - we need to maybe not go in that direction and find other ways to balance the budget," Dussault added.

In her campaign, Dussault questioned if the district was moving toward large centralized K-5 schools and away from neighborhood schools. She said Tuesday that the issue was an important one to residents she talked to on the campaign trail. She supports small neighborhood schools, saying they provide the best education.

"I'm elated," said Rogers, 37, a homemaker and community volunteer, minutes after learning the final results.

She said she felt confident throughout the campaign.

"With the three of us winning, it is unbelievable," she said.

Rogers, who was an unsuccessful candidate for the board last year, didn't express any immediate plans as trustee.

"I've got to take a deep breath and realize the victory first," she said. "I'm ready to work with the community and public. I really think the community is ready for change."

Rogers called for more fiscal responsibility on the school board and encouraged independent thinking and public participation. She has volunteered eight years in the classroom, is a regular at school board meetings and PTA member, and has a bachelor's degree in elementary education. She also served on the Schoolwide Title I steering committee and the MCPS School Closure/Alternative committee.

Merrill, 41, a community organizer and political newcomer to Missoula, emphasized school closures as a major concern in his campaign. He said recent closures have "traumatized many families and undermined support for public education." He also called on the school board to be more open and democratic in its decision-making process.

Merrill has nine years of teaching experience and a bachelor's degree in public administration.

"I'm delighted," Merrill said of the results. "I think the community has spoken in a clear way and I think there is a mandate for change."

Merrill said he would like to see an energy audit of the schools and increased involvement of the community in the schools.

"Also, the closure of Prescott School needs to be re-evaluated," he said.

"I'd like to create a sense of anticipation through the entire school community - teachers, parents, administrators and the community - that it's our school system and we need to come together and make it the kind of school system we dream about," he said.

Guffin, 46, a judicial staff attorney who had served six years on the school board, wished the best to the new board members at what she described a difficult time for public education in Montana.

"You can't be in a bad financial situation which most of the school districts are in without making a lot of people unhappy," Guffin said. "Maybe there will be changes that will make people more satisfied, but I think the crux of the matter is the declining enrollment and the subsequent decline in funding."

Kupilik, 57, an economics professor at University of Montana, campaigned on his experience and training. His top concerns were securing a consistent, adequate source of funding for education; maintaining excellence in district programs while securing an acceptable student/teacher ratio; and developing programs that will allow students to compete in the 21st century.

He could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.

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