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Big Sky School Board candidate interviews

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Candidate forum April 26, elections May 8 Editorial Staff

The following are answers from the candidates for the Big Sky School Board to pressing questions in the community. Answers were lightly edited for brevity.

Ty Moline is challenging current board member Barbara Rowley for the two-year board term. Matt Jennings, Rich Lindell, Kristen Ramirez and Jolene Romney are running for two seats, each with three-year board terms.

Levy items for the May 8 election have not yet been set. There will be a public candidate forum on April 26 at the Lone Peak Cinema. Time for that was also not set as of press time.

1. Why did you enter the race for the Big Sky School Board?

2. What are your thoughts on the recent changes to the school curriculum requirements and district name from Ophir to Big Sky School District?

3. Some have said the school is running out of room. How does a district like Big Sky—whose population fluctuates annually—plan for a growing student body?

4. Ennis and Big Sky’s Madison County residents will vote for two new trustees on May 8. They will have a new superintendent at the end of June. How do you see the two boards maintaining a strong relationship in the future? Is there a need for this?

5. What do you see as the most important aspects of the school budget and budgeting plans in the coming three years?

Jolene Romney

1. With three young children, I have a vested interest in serving our community by setting goals and implementing policies that provide our students with the an excellent education. I set high standards and have high expectations for each of my own unique children, thus value the School’s vision for excellence and its core philosophy to nurture each student’s potential to the fullest extent. I truly want the best public educational opportunities for all the children of our community and I am ready to work hard and make smart decisions that reflect this vision.

2. There have been multiple community forums on these issues during this school year, which have proven to be a really positive way to hear all sides of the issues. The recent changes to the school curriculum requirements to increase credits required for graduation from 22 credits to between 27-30 credits were agreed upon my most people in the community. I concur with this opinion and believe our school should raise the bar toward excellence. With next year’s sophomore class on track to graduate with the increased credit load, it seems the school has not only met its goal and vision of excellence, but it has effectively worked through one of the inevitable growing pains of having a new high school in a collaborative manner with the community.

The district name change to Big Sky School District, which will take effect in July, is another example of how the school is keeping pace with what is happening in the community. As leaders of the community continue to work on community branding and strategic planning, I think it is important for people to recognize our school by name as being a vital part of the town.

3. If the projected class sizes over the next few years are realized, there is no question that the school will run out of room. This issue is already being discussed within the administration and the current School Board, but I believe this a good problem to have. I would like to see our town grow and I would like families with children to stay in (and move into) Big Sky, contribute in their own way to our wonderful town, and help it expand. That being said, it is important that we explore all the options for finding space for more students. In the immediate future (next year) this may require creatively using the space we have, but in the future, I hope we will be able to able to expand our quality and exceptional facilities to accommodate our student body. Our school building is one of the our biggest assets.

4. The recent issues with Ennis School District have been very interesting to watch unfold. Not only because Ennis is our neighbor and the issues surrounding funding of the building of their new school are unprecedented, but because the property taxes of Madison County Big Sky home owners have played a big role in the story. It is quite a complicated issue as is evident by the research and articles done in our local papers and it leaves me with many answered questions.

I would like to think that in the past few years the Ennis School administration and board acted with the best interests of the students and community in mind. This is not an excuse for negligence, but my hopes are that the two new Ennis School Board trustees and superintendent will be able to provide the district with enough fresh insight into their problems that the school district and town itself will be able to get out from under their cloud. It seems the community will vote on whether this will involve delving into an audit that answers some of the unanswered questions. Personally I am in favor of full transparency.

From my understanding of how the laws are currently written, changes regarding the re-drawing of school district lines or county lines would require an enormous amount of work and cooperation between the two school districts and/or counties. Therefore, I feel it is very important to maintain a strong relationship between the two boards. I would be willing to cooperate with the Ennis School Board in any way our community finds necessary.

5. I have learned quite a bit about school budgets over the past several years at school board meetings and I realize there is still much to be learned. While I understand that good personnel are key to the success of any organization (good teachers and good administrators are what make a school successful) until recently I did not realize that 84% of our school budget is personnel services, salaries and benefits. We are not an exception in this case; as this is the norm for most school budgets. Therefore, it is hard to ignore that this is the most important aspect of our budget. Our time with Mr. Jerry House is short and so finding a fabulous administrator to fill his shoes will be vital to the success of our school. Further, keeping and hiring exceptional teachers who see eye to eye with our school vision and are motivated by the teacher training and further education opportunities the district provides, as well as the lifestyle our town has to offer will be very important. Lastly, it seems clear that an expansion of facilities will be a necessary consideration over the next three years to accommodate our growing population of young children.

Matt Jennings

1. Last summer I came to my first Ophir/Lone Peak High School board meeting. We were hoping to get our first son Matthew into Kindergarten early as his 5th birthday was not until October. I was drawn to the issues the board was dealing with, and impressed by their passion for the school. It was my first real glimpse into my son’s education and I knew right away I wanted to play a role to make sure it was great.

2. I think that the recent changes in curriculum are a positive step for students. I believe giving children more structure will give them a more solid base to move forward in life. We need our children to have all the opportunities and requirements a larger town can provide so they can be competitive in whatever they choose to do after high school. I can’t imagine “early graduation” would be beneficial for any child. We need to give our children every tool we possibly can to send them off in the world.

As I said above, I am new to the school on a whole as my family is just entering into this stage. I do feel I need to understand a bit better all the reasons for changing the name to give a complete answer. It would seem that the Big Sky name has a strong connotation and it may help with funding to capitalize on the strength of it. I look forward to learning more on this topic.

3. We need to start addressing the problem sooner than later. Big Sky is a growing area not only to seasonal residents but to full time people as well. Clearly as the word gets out about what Big Sky has to offer we will continue to grow and change. Not only are new people coming to Big Sky but our current residents are expanding their families each year. Next year the incoming kindergarten class will be even larger than the class this year which had to be split into 2 classes to accommodate the high number of kids. I feel it is necessary for each teacher to have their own space to do what they do best. We have had such amazing donations to create the school we have now and I hope to be a part of the next stage. I look forward to learning about all levels of funding and growth to see that we are able to expand with our ever changing population. I am sure this will be a huge challenge but an exciting one!

4. This is another issue that I do look forward to digging into so I can more fully understand. Looking in from the outside, Ennis feels like a world away from our little community and a very distant relation. It would seem to me that the best option is to look into drawing up new district lines that make more sense. The fact that such a substantial amount of the taxes collected from Madison County go to the Ennis school district even though they are paid by Big Sky residents is wrong. Clearly Big Sky residents would not even have the option to take advantage of that tax $ and send our children to Ennis even if we wanted to. If Ophir/Lone Peak had even a portion of that money I am sure we would be able to entertain growth with building space, curriculum needs and increased pay for our amazing staff.

5. In my opinion our most important budget points should be: Creating space for our growing student body, expanding our curriculum, and paying our teachers what they deserve. I feel these three areas are connected directly and it will be very hard to grow one area without addressing the next.

Already there is a shortage of space for certain classrooms. Without proper building requirements we can’t expect to offer more/different kinds of classes or expect our staff to do their best job.

We need to constantly be expanding curriculum so that we can obtain all of our goals in academics and give our children the most opportunity to find their strengths. It has always amazed me that teachers receive as little as they do for their noble profession. Ophir and Lone Peak High have great staff and they should be compensated better for the influence that they have on our kids.

Ty Moline

1. I feel serving as a board member on
some of Big Sky’s many boards is one
of the most important responsibilities
a Big Sky citizen can undertake.
The school board is one of these positions
as this board makes decisions
that will help shape the future of
our community. Besides, a couple of
wonderful women already involved
with the school twisted my arm, as
they felt I have much to offer to my

2. I like the name change. The community
does need to have an image
or brand name that we can all be
uniform in communicating. It may
cause some issue if we ever play Big
Sky High School but that is another
bridge to cross later.
As for the new curriculum, I’m sure
the current board and school staff
reviewed this inside and out before
they adopted it. If the program needs
[to be] tweaked down the road, the
staff and board will address the issue
and again make a decision they feel is
best for the district and its students.

3. Good question. This is an issue
that will be a tough one to tackle
because there are so many factors that
come into play. If we only had a crystal
ball and could see five or 10 years
into the future.

4. It’s important that the boards keep
an open, working relationship, and I
cannot see any reason they wouldn’t.

5. I can express opinions on what the
most important aspects may be, but
until I am on the board and get filled
in on issues I’m not fully aware of,
I will keep my lips sealed and ears
open. Besides, things will come up
that the current board and future
board may not have been fully aware
of, that will be more important than
any current budget items.

Richard Lindell

1. For three reasons: 1) I want to contribute to the community
of Big Sky for welcoming me and my family as
this is our home now; 2) Education is a growing concern
as I have two sons in Ophir, and their educational
needs were one of the reasons we chose Big Sky to live
in; 3) simply, I was asked to.

2. Changing the school district name is in alignment
with continuing to establish the community ID. The
name change builds upon those efforts to have Big
Sky known as its own separate entity versus as a subcommunity
of Bozeman or any of the other surrounding
communities. The part of change in the curriculum
that allows greater choices is needed to better suit a
diverse student body and community. As the community
grows and evolves, students and families have different
educational objectives, and the school needs to
be able to adapt and meet those objectives. Education is
evolving across the US and we need to keep pace.

3.By planning for change and being prepared to adapt
quickly. As part of that planning, the school administration
needs to be intimately knowledgeable of the
community’s growth and strategic goals, as well as that
of the local business community. The size and growth
of the student body is directly proportional to the
fluctuations of the business community. As business
growth yields year-round employment opportunities,
the population increases, which then needs an educational
system suited to support family needs.

4. By the question itself, it is evident that there needs
to be a strong relationship, and to have a strong
relationship it is necessary to have a strong board here
in Big Sky (Ophir). The relationship should be based
upon mutual needs and objectives, and leveraging the
best of both districts to provide both student bodies
with the resources to excel. How? Big Sky establishing
its identity; capitalizing on its growing and changing
student body; and by leveraging the support of its
business community to promote the development of
Big Sky’s educational system.

5. Most important is budgeting funds for the changing
needs by ensuring the teaching staff and facilities can
adapt quickly for changes in growth and educational
goals. The budget should provide for increased technology
and teacher and classroom development.

Kristen Ramirez
Not Pictured

1. I was blessed enough to attend Ophir School growing
up and I wanted to give back to the school and
community that was such an important part of my

2. Education is freedom! It’s our job to make sure the
children receive an education that will send them into
the world. By raising the curriculum requirements,
we’re helping the students to understand their full
potential. The name change of the district created an
umbrella for the Ophir Elementary School, Ophir
Middle School and Lone Peak High School. It will
give us a common identity even though we have three
separate schools.

3. The Big Sky District is so blessed to have the current
administration and staff. They work diligently to make
use of every closet, office space, nook and open space.
We are, however, running out of space in our school.
The district is doing everything it can to make due
with the current space; however, it’s important we provide
the students adequate learning space. I personally
feel so blessed we have such a growing student body in
a state where schools are merging or closing.

4. [No comment]

5. In an era of ever changing technology, we must
continue to fund technology in our school along with
the need for an expanding building.

Barbara Rowley

1. I have enjoyed the many meaningful ways I have been able to contribute to the board during my four years as a trustee, and want to continue building on those experiences to serve our community and our children.

2. It was counting up my own daughter’s high school credits, and seeing how students who had been sophomores a year ago were suddenly becoming seniors, that alerted me to the very pressing issue of how our then graduation requirements aligned with our block system. Put simply, if a student took a full load (or even slightly less) in the block system of eight credits annually, graduation at LPHS’s 22 credits only took three years. When I brought this concern to the board chair and our wonderful new superintendent I was very pleased at the process we used to address the issue. Our board quickly decided that a LPHS degree that could be attained in three years with ease, and which had fairly limited requirements in math, science and social studies, did not provide the rigor or preparation for college that we want our graduates to possess. At the same time, we also realized that a significant change in graduation requirements was something that required community input and education. As the board representative at all three community meetings on the topic, I was heartened to see the engagement of our community with the school, and the ways in which we came together to present and approve a solution that will prepare our graduates not just to enter college, but to succeed there.

3. Twenty-two years ago, when I first arrived in Big Sky and worked as an aide at the school, we had no library, lunchroom or gymnasium–or even an on-site principal and superintendent. There were 45 students enrolled. You don’t need to look further than our physical plant today to see that our school boards and district have done a good job at anticipating future needs and our community has done an equally admirable job at supporting the school as it has needed to grow. Even though our seasonal population fluctuates, the trends at the school have been on a steady trajectory upward, and the community, as I’ve said, has done a good job of meeting those needs and I see no reason these trends will not continue.

4. School districts can work together on issues and do, through statewide organizations like MTSBA. Obviously, the fact that students and families in their district go to school in our district makes the relationship closer and I found it interesting that several of the Ennis candidates proposed having meetings here and acknowledged some of the fiscal, democratic, and educational inequities in our current situation.

5. I think we are in a better position budgetarily than we have been for several years due to some tough decisions by the board and great oversight from our administrator and our school accountant. We now are building a reserve, which will allow us to respond in a budgetary crisis. Our salary costs, which were once almost 95 percent of our budget have stabilized to a more sustainable 80 to 84 percent.

Public schools always struggle with funds; it is the unfortunate nature of the ways in which public schools are funded.Fortunately, efforts by a consortium of school districts and educational leaders (of which our district was one, as was our superintendent) has given us a better idea of what our state funding will be in the next few years which takes away at least one of the unknown factors in school budgeting.

People do not want to pay higher taxes, and even though our voters support us in our levies and bonds, and our tax base is high, education funding is equalized, so in many ways we are at the mercy of the state in terms of how much we can pay in salaries and other expenses. Fortunately, we have citizens who support our levies (which translates into funds kept right here in our district) and we have active fund-raising for much of what happens in the school through OSC, Booster Club and FOBSE, and other funds come into the district and its employees through the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, the Ophir School Fund and Women in Action. It is impossible to overstate how important these private funds are in helping us offer the educational experiences our community has come to expect.

In terms of the future, I think our budget will continue to reflect the value our district has historically placed on procuring the best staff, the most cutting edge curriculum and technology, to help our students succeed. Physical expansion will also surely be in our future.

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