Balance of power could shift with results of trustee election

For the second year in a row, the race for two open elementary trustee seats in Missoula County's largest school district could dramatically alter the way the board does business, depending on the outcome.

Like last year, at stake in the elementary contest are two open three-year seats on the Missoula County Public Schools Board. And four candidates are once again seeking the posts.

This time around, the field features incumbent Barb Seekins, former board member Jenda Cummings and two first-time candidates, Olan "Bubba" Alsup and Colleen Rogers.

A year ago, two incumbents, Cummings and Rosemary Harrison did battle with challengers Debra Sears and G.G. Weix. The major issue of contention between the candidates was school closure. Cummings and Harrison were among the five elementary trustees who voted to close Roosevelt and Emma Dickinson schools as a means of dealing with a declining K-5 enrollment and a decreasing elementary budget. Sears and Weix opposed school closure.

In a close four-way contest, Sears and Harrison came out on top.

The loss of Cummings and the addition of Sears meant that many of the split votes on the board changed from 5-2 to 4-3.

For the past year, Sears has generally sided with fellow trustees Suzette Dussault and Barb Seekins on many of the central funding issues involving the district.

Harrison continued to line up with chairman Mike Kupilik, Jan Guffin and Greg Tollefson in generally supporting Superintendent Mary Vagner and her administration's efforts to run the school district.

While the elementary majority dwindled, the MCPS administration still shared a good working relationship with enough board members to carry out policies that focused on consolidating resources and working to create smaller class sizes in K-5.

However, that could all change May 2.

Tollefson decided that three years of marathon meetings, unpleasant confrontations and countless hours of volunteered time was enough.

Cummings, on the other hand, came to the conclusion that she had unfinished business on the board after her narrow defeat last spring. If she is successful in her attempt to reclaim a seat, the composition of most board votes will likely remain 4-3, with the MCPS administration earning the support of the majority of elementary trustees on most issues.

But if Cummings falls again, the board could experience a power shift.

The most obvious changes could come if Seekins is reelected and Rogers wins the second seat.

A longtime school volunteer, Rogers has made it clear that she does not approve of the way the MCPS administration conducts much of its business. She has been a vocal critic of school closure, a move that affected her directly since her children attended Emma Dickinson School.

Teamed with Seekins, Dussault and Sears, Rogers would likely give the local anti-Vagner faction the majority of elementary votes it has been craving for the past three years.

Talk of reopening Dickinson School, which is now used as an alternative-learning and adult education center, has resurfaced in recent weeks. Faced with another elementary deficit that could top $900,000, the current board is not interested in reopening schools.

But a board of a different makeup might consider the idea.

Some bitter wounds still fester from last year's closure battle. Others, however, have healed as some of the most vocal opponents of school closure have recently come forward to say that their children are doing well at their new schools and thank administrators for making the transition so smooth.

The issue won't go away anytime soon, as a third building, Prescott School, is tentatively slated for closure in the spring of 2001.

The wild card in the May 2 election could be Alsup, a former teacher who now owns and operates the Petland business at Southgate Mall. Alsup was not involved in the school closure debate and has said that one of his goals is to "create an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect among trustees of the board."

One thing that won't change will be the composition of the high school portion of the board. Incumbents Joyce Easter and James Sadler are running unopposed for seats representing the Hellgate Elementary and Target Range/Bonner areas of the district.

When issues involving the high schools or the district as a whole come up for vote, all 11 board members - seven elementary and four high school - become involved. Even with a fundamental change in the elementary voting bloc, Vagner and the administration will still enjoy the support of the majority of the board on most issues.

Whatever the makeup, whoever manages to get elected will face a task that gets more difficult by the year. Along with scaling back budgets, probably through program and staffing reductions, MCPS is also in the midst of difficult negotiating sessions with teachers and classified personnel.

And unless the state Legislature does something to boost school funding, the road is only going to get rockier for school trustees of the future.

Reporter Gary Jahrig can be reached at 523-5259 or at gjahrig@missoulian.com.

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