By Taylor Anderson
Big Sky Weekly Assistant Editor
These questions were compiled from residents in Ennis, as well as from the Big Sky Weekly. Answers have been edited for brevity.
The following candidates are running for two opening seats on the Ennis School Board. Elections are May 8.
1. What is your position regarding a comprehensive audit of the Ennis School District’s financial records over the past seven years?
2. What is your position regarding the construction of the $10 million grade school?
3. Big Sky pays about 75 percent of the costs of the Ennis School District but has no students in the school. Do you feel the board should work to provide more to that town, or are things fine as they are?
4. What’s enticing for you to run for such a scrutinized position at this time?
5. What are your plans to help repair the image of the school?
6. How do you plan to work with the board and new superintendent to ensure that you’re operating under the laws of the state?
1. I’m all for transparency in the school district and in government in general. In this situation, I don’t believe an audit would provide a great deal more information and transparency than we already have.
If the point of the audit is to find out if funds from permissive levies (adult education and transportation) were used to construct the new school, that question has already been answered. Funds from permissive levies were used to construct the new school; about $2.5 million from adult education and $1.7 million from transportation, according to my numbers. To my knowledge, no trustee has ever contested the fact that those funds were used to build the new school.
With this in mind, I have no interest in spending more taxpayer funds to find out what we already know, especially as I don’t believe it will bring us any closer to a resolution. I also believe the time, energy and funds required to conduct the audit could be better used in moving forward to find solutions to the issues facing the school and community.
2. The school has been built and is a wonderful new facility for the students, faculty and community. To question whether it should have been built, and what any candidate would have done or how he or she would have voted in the past is unproductive and doesn’t lead us forward or provide solutions.
3. I would support a dialog between the board and Big Sky residents as to what services could be provided. I would also endeavor to ease the tax burden for the entire district.
4. My children are four and one now, and will be attending the school in the near future. I owe too much to this community, school, and especially my children to sit idly by and do nothing while our town rips itself apart.
The funding and construction of the school has created strife, disintegrated friendships, and caused animosity surrounding the students and faculty of the school. By moving forward and finding solutions to the problems facing our school with respect for all participants and using common sense to guide us forward, we can set an example for the students to follow when confronted with adversity.
5. To improve public relations and transparency by striving to answer questions to the best of my ability in a prompt and timely fashion. To proceed with clarity of purpose and transparency; to involve all interested parties, including the State Attorney General’s office, the Office of Public Instruction, Madison County Commissioners and County Attorney, and any of the public that wishes to be involved in a meaningful and constructive manner.
6. I would start by treating everyone with respect and dignity, seeking counsel from outside sources where appropriate, seeking second opinions when prudent, and listening to the opinions of the public, superintendent, principals, teachers and students.
I’d also make sure the superintendent knows exactly what his or her roles and responsibilities are, and what tasks he or she is expected to undertake. I’d also make sure there were clear lines of communication between the board and superintendent, the board and teachers, and the teachers and superintendent.
Please address any questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for your time, and hopefully your vote on May 8.
1. Unfortunately, I see that it’s something that has to be done to begin the process of healing within our community. The primary issue for the community over the past several years has been the fiscal spending of tax dollars outside of their designated revenue purposes. When Peter is robbed to pay Paul, is it also plausible that Jill was also robbed to pay Peter back? Without a complete audit we may never know. Whatever issues may be discovered because of an audit can best be remedied by a fresh set of eyes looking at a current overall accounting.
2. When my wife Susanne and I moved here seven years ago, we realized a new school or remodel would be necessary because the community was growing. We now have a beautiful and functional new school built with the future in mind. My primary objection isn’t the fact that a new school was built, it’s the fact that our right to vote on it was taken. Past and present trustees surreptitiously raised the mill-rate of non-levied funds to build the new school.
3. True, the portion of Big Sky that is within Madison County provides a significant amount of the funding for the Ennis School District. Currently, I believe approximately seven students receive out-of-district education from the Big Sky Gallatin County educational school district. The first question here should be, are they receiving the same or higher educational opportunities through this arrangement? If not, obliviously (sic) it needs to be addressed. Students, parents and the communities which comprise the Ennis School District should receive equal educational opportunities. Open conversation between all interested parties needs to begin. Because of the distance between Ennis and Big Sky, the School Board needs to extend their schedules to travel to Big Sky and hold community meetings throughout the year. Additionally, I believe that even though the students from the Ennis School District living in Big Sky and receiving their education through out-of-district service arrangements, they and their parents remain long term investments of the Ennis School District and should receive a strong commitment from the school district in meeting their needs.
4. This is a good question. Many of my friends have ask me why I want to do this. Several came to me and asked me to run for one of the open positions. All of them know that I have given a lifetime to public service. It was definitely my chosen career, and I know that from the challenges of that career and my outside interests, I have not only the desire to continue to serve my community, but the ability to successfully handle the challenges ahead.
5. Open the lines of communication. First, between the board members, the new superintendent and school staff. Then between the board and the community to which it serves. Goals need to be set and met. Each and every member of the community has a voice and they need to be respectfully addressed. The second task which needs to be addressed is the true fiscal picture. Determine all of the potential liabilities, if any, and establish a plan to limit their impact on educational services provided by the district.
6. Each of the elected board members come from different walks of life and possess different desires and strengths. My job will be to learn those traits, develop a working platform with them, and move forward with addressing the needs of the school district and the superintendent. Knowing the laws that surround the governing of the schools, its funding and its personnel is essential. The new superintendent needs to be an “overseer” meeting the needs of the school and its staff while balancing his or her advocacy to the board’s direction.
1. I fully support a comprehensive audit of the Ennis School District’s financial records. We must regain the public’s trust in our schools and our financial stewardship. There must be a full and open review of the financial record to answer legitimate questions. Local attorney John Scully said this needed to be done almost two years ago. It still needs to be done. The audit should include all funds, not simply the funds used illegally to build the school. There are too many unanswered questions about contracts not being put out to bid and contracts signed but not approved by the board.
2. We needed to renovate or build a new grade school and middle school. Doing it without letting all of the taxpayers in the school district vote was wrong. We must never let this kind of thing happen again.
3. We need to schedule regular meetings between the Ennis School Board of Trustees and the parents, taxpayers and students in Big Sky, and use those to explore ways we can work together going forward. For example, we may be able to create a distance learning
partnership with MSU and/or Montana Western. Using computers and new technologies might allow us to create classrooms without the usual bricks and mortar. It might also be possible to create a satellite program at Big Sky with a special focus on outdoor and wildlife subjects or even a secondary school recreation management focused program.
What we need to do is use our imaginations and vision to create a real partnership. I would like to hear ideas from residents of Big Sky. My phone number is (406) 682-7224.
4. Under normal circumstances I might not run for this office. However, this is the community in which I grew up. It’s where my children were educated and where my grandchildren are being educated. Given the difficulties the community now faces I feel I have the kind of background and backbone needed to help us solve these problems and move forward. It will be difficult and perhaps painful, but we have to restore confidence in our fiscal management before we will ever be able to move forward.
5. First and foremost we need a comprehensive audit. Second, we need to be certain agendas and detailed accurate board minutes are widely distributed to the community and local newspapers. Third we need to make a greater effort to be more inclusive of parents, teachers, students, taxpayers, School District employees and other community members in the decision making process. Fourth, we need to guarantee our books and financial records are open to everyone at all times. All major contracts need to be put out to bid and open to community input. Fifth, we need to reach out to families who have taken their students out of our district and ask, “why?” Sixth, we need to be more respectful of community input at board meetings, answering the public’s questions rather than simply treating questions as comments.
6. First, we need to be certain that we hire a competent new superintendent who has the proper background and qualifications to lead our school at this critical time. Second, the district has to get a new attorney and a new auditor so that we can start with a fresh, clean slate and so that the professionals we depend on are not in a position of conflict or
compromise. Third, if I’m not sure of something regarding an item that needs voting on or a question being asked of me, I will do research and find the answer before voting or answering. Finally, moving the funds back to the county treasurer is another step that can enhance transparency and help restore confidence.
1. My position regarding a comprehensive audit of Ennis School District is that the board must abide by the laws governing school finance, specifically the spending and/or comingling of specific funds. If it was deemed necessary to have an audit to identify errors in spending, then I would be prepared to consider doing so.
2. I have said all along, and publicly, that I believe that the board acted within the best interests of the district with the information it had at that time. I would like to think with the information we have now, things could have been done differently. The new school is built. Let’s make sure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated, and move forward with our focus on the kids.
3. I both realize and appreciate the high percentage of taxes that Big Sky residents pay to our school. I feel that as a trustee, my obligation would be to the students of the district, including those in the Big Sky area, and seeing that they get the best education possible. I don’t see where the school’s job is to provide anything to the town of Big Sky, or the town of Ennis for that matter.
4. I felt compelled to run for this trustee position because I want to see the current situation within our school and our community resolved and our focus return to educating our kids.
5. I believe that the school needs to work toward more community involvement and better public communication. There are great things happening at this school and that needs to be at the forefront. I think that building a good relationship with the county commissioners is one place to start. I also feel the need for an article/overview of each board meeting should be written and submitted to all of our local newspapers–maybe that would spur more community involvement. I feel that the people sometimes forget they have a responsibility to keep informed of the happenings at the school.
6. I plan to do my best to educate myself, using all methods available, regarding state laws and statutes as they pertain to schools. As anyone would imagine, there is a fairly steep learning curve.
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