Prioritizing School Decisions

I’ve noticed articles about school board activities in different parts of the nation.  As I have thought about things, I’m tempted to alter Clauswitz’ quote – “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult”

I came on to Trego’s school board when we had 4 ANB – that’s an abbreviation for Average Number Belonging.  It’s defined in 20-9-311 in Montana Codes Annotated.  It means we were just about out of business.  A couple years later, we have the school back in business, but even the simplest thing is difficult.  Here’s where you learn to count students and figure out funding.

Deciding what to do as a school board member is very simple – but the way a school functions makes the simplest of things difficult.  I’ve developed a priority list to help make decisions.

  1. Is this decision in the student’s best interest?
  2. Is this decision in the school’s best interest?
  3. Is this decision in the community’s best interest?
  4. Is this decision in the employees’ best interest?
  5. Is this decision in the board and board members’ best interest?

The students’ best interests come first.  My own priorities are that learning needs to be enjoyable and that academics comes first among student activities.  I see room for athletics and special events – but those are secondary.  A simple thing, made difficult by conflicting or undecided priorities.

The school, as a local institution, and building comes second.  Our school at Trego was built in the mid-sixties, to Corps of Engineers standards.  It has lasted a half-century without a fund dedicated to a planned maintenance schedule.  I’ve seen century-old schools in good shape in their second century, and 50 year-old buildings demolished due to poor maintenance.   Our facility was built by an earlier generation, and needs to be maintained for the future.  A simple thing – but the building has no voice and maintenance can always be put off until later.

The Trego community and residents who fund the school come third. Don’t take this out of context because the staff comes fourth.  If they aren’t working for those first three priorities, we have a problem.  Teachers, janitor, cook, clerk, bus driver are all needed.  This is the personnel management spot, where conflict and strife combine to make even the simple things difficult.

Board members individually and as a group have the lowest priority.  We are unpaid and ideally the positions should be sought as a civic responsibility. 

Everything that comes before your school board is very simple – but even the simplest thing is difficult. 


Homeless Students

Spending time on the school board provides a lot of information.  Some goes into the brain and must be forgotten unless a later incident brings it up.  Some are opinions that seem irrelevant, but are important to the person sharing them.  Recently, I’ve learned that a student can have a home but still be homeless.

Part of it is a social thing.  People like to own their own piece of the west – and raw land, particularly when it is less accessible and remote from the electric grid, is more affordable.  Here is the publication that defines homeless for Montana’s Office of Public Instruction:

OPI Guidance for Substandard Housing Determination (Unsheltered) for Students Identified as Homeless 

Homeless Liaisons should consider multiple factors when determining if a family’s or unaccompanied  youth’s situation meets the criteria of homelessness due to substandard housing.

  • Home must have a solid foundation and a roof that does not leak
  • Security locks must be on all exterior entrance doors
  • Home must be free from insect or rodent infestation
  • Home should have no more than five unrelated persons living in a single-family dwelling, or no more than two family members for each bedroom in the home
  • Each room must have a window or duct to provide ventilation, and interior air must be free of harmful pollutants such as mold
  • Home must have electric service and at least one electric outlet in each room
  • Home must have adequate heating facilities, and hot and cold running water
  • Home must have a separate kitchen and bathroom, each with an operational sink
  • Kitchen must have space for storage, preparation, and serving of food, including a refrigerator and stove or range with oven
  • At least one bathroom must have a bathtub or shower, flush toilet, sink, and offer privacy
  • Every sleeping room must have a window or door providing access to the outside

Additional factors that should be considered:

  • The family’s financial situation and ability to obtain suitable housing
  • The overall care of the children, including personal hygiene, cleanliness of clothing, nutrition, and healthcare

*Adapted from guidelines from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)

It seems a bit unreal to live in a community where a family can pay over $1000 per year in property taxes, and find that their child is homeless.  Still, if you can own your home, free and clear, and still be homeless, it does say something about equality.


Error in Eureka Elementary School Board Election resulted in many extra ballots being mailed

An error in the Eureka Elementary School Board Election resulted in many extra ballots being mailed. Registered voters in Trego, Fortine and Stryker recently received ballots for the Eureka Elementary School Board Election.

While Trego, Fortine, and Stryker are part of the LCHS high school district, none of the three communities are part of the elementary district (Trego and Fortine both have their own elementary school districts- Stryker is part of Trego’s School District). Consequently, residents are not eligible to vote in Eureka Elementary district elections. With a large number of people ineligible to vote receiving ballots (some of which may already have been sent in), it seems likely that this year’s election is going to be a bit complicated.

We don’t know yet how the district is going to handle this (if they’ve started opening the ballots they’ve gotten back, it’s going to be difficult to sort the valid votes from the invalid).

How did we hear about this? We (Mike) asked:

Greetings – I have received the official ballot for the school trustee election of May 4, 2021.  I would appreciate your assurance (your email is listed on the enclosure) that I am permitted to vote on the candidates for school district 13.

As a Trego resident, the elementary district in which I vote (and serve as a board member) is 53.  I recognize that Marcie Butts represents my area in the LCHS district, and that her election is by acclamation.

I may not understand (the explanation I recall is at least 50 years old) but before casting my ballot, I would like to know that I am doing so correctly.  I know that we don’t vote on Eureka elementary levies, so I would appreciate clarification – I can figure out justification both ways, but I suspect only one is correct.”

Mike McCurry (email to Onna Escobar, Eureka Public Schools)

What we’ve learned: This error originated with the county election department, which provided address labels to the Eureka School District. The error was not caused by the Eureka School District. (Eureka Public Schools and County Commissioner Josh Letcher were very helpful in providing information about the situation)

What probably happened is that ballots were issued to the registered voters in the high school district, instead of just the Eureka elementary district.

At any rate, we ought to learn more as the school decides where to go from here. In the meantime, we suspect that residents outside of the district can make life easier for the folks who have to handle this by not mailing in their (invalid) ballots.

Part of the mail-in ballot we received (for an election we cannot vote in, because we live in the Trego Elementary District)

Trego School-More About the Building

Since the state was kind enough to go through every K12 school in the state (back in 2008) and evaluate the condition of the buildings, there’s a fair bit of information to play with.

The general facts- as taken from the Facilities Condition Inventory.

BuildingYear Constructed (according to the state’s report)Deficiency RatioRenewal Cost (estimate as of 2008)
Trego School (the school building proper, including the portable classrooms on the East end)196730.1%$594,743
Bus Equipment Shed19601.8%$104
Fuel Storage Unit19601.8%$104
While it might seem a bit odd that the last two are exactly the same- since the complaint (paint peeling) was identical, the identical deficiency ratios and renewal costs make some sense.

Evidently, then, the problem was (and given the comparatively low costs of the other repairs, surely still is) the school itself, with a deficiency ratio of 30.1%. With the report estimating the total cost of repairs of the school building at $594,743, the school board will have to prioritize the necessary repairs (surely some of them have been addressed since 2008).

Many of the complaints in the report were reasonably straight forward; Windows should be double paned rather than single and window frames should have thermal breaks. Simple, though the renewal cost is quite spendy ($86,107 in total for windows). Another big ticket item is the two “portable” classrooms on the east side of the school. The report observed “Floor sagging or showing other similar such failure”, and estimated $88,058 to renew.

While the school board did pass a permissive levy which will amount to around $25,500, that’s not going to be sufficient for some of the costlier repairs the school is going to need. With the budget tight (enrollment has gone up, but the funding received from the state is based on a three year average), the school board is going to have to prioritize spending very carefully.

Archives, Community

Blast from the Past: School Board Discusses Nepotism

Sometimes, even old editions prove timely. Back about this time in 1988 Trego School board found itself discussing nepotism, specifically a school board member with a parent as a substitute cook.

We mentioned nepotism briefly last week, when we discussed the upcoming school board election. The state laws on nepotism can be found here.

Trego school board trustees discussed nepotism at their regular meeting February 10. The question of nepotism arose between school board trustee Sam Chaney, and substitute cook Donnajo Chaney, Sam’s mother. Sam Chaney received letters concerning nepotism from Bob Stockton, Office of Public Instruction and Cindy Middag, LC superintendent. The board took no action. The question of nepotism was again addressed concerning Sam Chaney and Trego election judge Goldie Calvert, his mother-in-law. The opinion of Jim Lear, attorney for the Legislative Council, Secretary of State’s office was that it is not legal for the Board of Trustees to appoint a relative to an election board because of the nepotism law. By doing so, the election could be challenged.

Trego Mountain Ear, February 22, 1988

Appointment of relative to office of trust or emolument unlawful — exceptions — publication of notice. (1) Except as provided in subsection (2), it is unlawful for a person or member of any board, bureau, or commission or employee at the head of a department of this state or any political subdivision of this state to appoint to any position of trust or emolument any person related or connected by consanguinity within the fourth degree or by affinity within the second degree.

Montana Code Annotated 2-2-302

Is it legal for a board member to appoint a relative as a substitute? Well, looking at the current laws, substitute teacher is a bit complicated, but if the time requirements (no more than 30 consecutive days) are met, it’s possible. What about substitutes for other roles? If the person was hired for that role before the relative joined the board, the situation is an exception. Additionally, while the language is a bit cluttered, 2(b) suggests that if certain conditions are met, it could be done legally.

school district trustees if all the trustees, with the exception of any trustee who is related to the person being appointed and who must abstain from voting for the appointment, approve the appointment of a person related to a trustee;

Montana Code Annotated 2-2-302. 2(b)

There’s also an accompanying requirement for the position to be posted in the newspaper in advance of the appointment.

As a side note, there are also rules governing election judges. Provided that the election judge isn’t a relative of a trustee running for reelection, having the relative of a school board trustee as the election judge wouldn’t be a problem. Of course, having one of your relatives judge the election your running in? That’s still a problem. Additionally, since election judges are paid, appointing your relatives is still bad form, even if it is an exception in Montana Code Annotated 2-2-302.

But read the whole issue:


Trego School Trustees Positions

Trego School (School District 53) has scheduled the regular school election for Tuesday, May 4, 2021.  Three trustee positions are up for election – a 1 year term, a 2 year term and a 3 year term.  It’s been a long time since a school election was held – for years, a single candidate for each board position has resulted in election by acclamation. Democracy does seem to work better when people actually run for office and elections actually occur. Folks interested in applying should contact the school clerk (email).

Who can run? According to the school election handbook, published by Montana’s Office of Public Instruction (OPI):

Any person qualified to vote in a district is eligible for the office of trustee. However, there are
restrictions on who may hold office. A trustee may not be employed in any capacity by the
trustee’s own school district (with the exception of officiating athletic competitions under the
auspices of the Montana Officials Association). The trustee candidate may be related to a
school or county employee

No person convicted of a felony is eligible to hold office until final discharge from state supervision.

-School Election handbook

Trustee candidates may be related to a school employee, are there any special considerations if they are? Definitely! State nepotism laws absolutely apply to school boards, this means that a relative of a school employee that is also a board member will need to be well informed in order to avoid violating state law. Especially significant, since the penalty is potentially as hefty as $1000 fine and 6 months jail time.

Can board members be related to one another? Sure, but like the previous case, some research is going to be necessary. In this case, the law to be careful of is the open meeting law. A meeting occurs whenever a quorum is present, and while a Quorum is three members of a five member board, a four member board has a quorum of two. While Trego School has a five member board, any one person stepping down could create a situation in which a husband and wife (or parent and child) couldn’t talk to one another without having an illegal meeting. So, is it possible to have relatives on the school board? Definitely. A good idea? Perhaps not.

Why aren’t the terms all the same length? School board terms are staggered, so that only part of the board is up for election at any given time. If someone steps down from the board, midyear, the board appoints a replacement who serves until the next election. At that point, the person elected serves the rest of the term.

Why haven’t there been elections recently? If there aren’t more candidates running than vacancies, the district isn’t required to have an election, instead, each candidate is appointed, by “acclamation”, since they’ve effectively ran unopposed for the position.

What does being on a school board entail? Monthly meetings, at minimum. Boards can also hold special meetings, as needed, and board members can attend trainings.


Trego School to Resume In-Person Learning

This weekend, school board and staff attended a virtual meeting to determine the date to resume in-person learning. Most of the discussion focused on logistics. School will be resuming Wednesday (November 4th) when a majority of the staff are no longer required to quarantine. Details of the school’s Health and Safety plan can be found on the school’s website.

Staff and school board were in full agreement that the best thing for the students is to have classes in person, and to reach that point as quickly as possible. Children benefit from routine and consistency, both of which are difficult to maintain with distance learning. While distance learning provides some semblance of the usual daily routine in the form of homework, studying, and interaction, it is a poor substitute.

The meeting was upbeat and collaborative. School board and staff were united in the objective of getting kids back in the school, and talk swiftly turned from “How do we make this work?” to “How soon can we make this work?” and “What will it take to do it sooner?” Wednesday (November 4th) was the compromise between an urgent desire to get students and staff back into the school and the logistical challenges of scheduling and staffing.

It’s a rare meeting that is full of positive questions. It is very easy to find reasons not to do things, reasons that things cannot work. It is a rare person who can ask “What will it take to get this done?” and “How can we make this work?”. It was a pleasure to witness a meeting characterized by that approach.


School Board Meets Next Wednesday

Trego School’s Board will meet Wednesday October 14th at 6PM. Attending it virtually (either with a computer or calling in with a phone) is possible via the gotomeeting app. School Board Meetings are public (unless the board needs to discuss confidential information in a closed session), so the public is welcome to attend (virtually).

At this meeting, the board will be swearing in a new member. While School Board elections are traditionally held in the spring, the board accepts applications and approves new members, in order to maintain a five member board. This new board member (and any others that join the board in this fashion) will be up for election this spring. School board members are elected for three year terms. Traditionally the terms are staggered, so that the entire board is never up for election at once.

If you don’t remember hearing anything about an election this last spring, it wasn’t that you missed the news. While state law mandates when the election should occur, requires the board clerk to arrange for election judges, etc. it also removes the requirement for holding an election if no more candidates are running than there are vacancies. In that case, all members running are elected by acclamation.

While the word acclamation implies enthusiastic approval, context matters. In the context of an election, the meaning differs. When someone is elected by acclamation, they run unopposed. The premise is that in the absence of another candidate to vote for, there is little need for an election, since all votes would go to that candidate.

After swearing in the newest board member, the board expects to continue discussion their health and safety plan. The rest of the agenda includes:

  1. Sub Application
  2. School Bus Repairs/Replacement
  3. Tenure Policy
  4. Hooked on Fishing/PTCO Accounts
  5. Student Attendance Agreements
  6. Ham radio online course
  7. Second reading- Policy 1400 -Change Time of Regular Board Meetings
  8. Continuous School Improvement Plan

Additionally, there will be reports from various staff and board members. Copies of the agenda for school board meetings can be found in the post office a few days before the upcoming meeting. Community members can request copies of the minutes after the meetings.


Be Nice to the Candidates

I can claim that I am an elected school trustee.  So can the school board members in Fortine and Eureka.  Yet I (and probably most of them) was elected by acclamation.  There may be a more politically correct way to describe it – but the reality is that I was elected without anyone voting for me.  A lot of school trustees share that reality – but I don’t believe it is a good situation.

The challenge is that, on far too many local boards and commissions, we have the same situation.  When a candidate can be elected by acclamation, without a single vote on a ballot, the concept of representative government breaks down.  On local district boards, it has broken.

The first reason to be nice to the candidates – all of them – is that they have expressed a willingness to spend time in meetings.  I’ve spent a lot of time in meetings.  Faculty meetings, departmental meetings, board meetings.  Usually I left with the feeling that a couple of hours of my life had just been taken from me.  I don’t care which party a candidate belongs to – he or she has expressed a willingness to attend meetings.  That deserves courtesy at the least.

Encouraging more candidates – being nice to them, regardless of party, just might reduce the need for term limits.  Often, we wind up with a long-serving politico who claims 10, 20 or 30 years of experience, but actually has two years experience repeated 5, 10 or 15 times. 

Encourage the candidates.  Reduce the unpleasantness of running for office – any office.  I will feel that I have done my job as a school trustee well if a better candidate beats me like a drum, with over half the district actually voting.  Elected by acclamation is a mark of a democracy in decline.