GREAT FALLS — Reporter Matt Holzapfel talked with Great Falls Public Schools superintendent Tom Moore:
Aside from dealing with the pandemic, what has been most memorable for you so far?
Tom: I guess the graduation last spring, and watching our CMR principal, Kerry Parsons ride his horse into the arena out at the fairgrounds on Friday night. Beautiful sunset evening. Where we'd been sequestered for nine weeks. And there's a lot of controversy around graduation, whether we're going to have it at all or not. And then we decided to do this and have it outdoors. To see those seniors be able to come back together again, after being isolated for nine weeks and celebrate graduation. That’s a capstone event for us as educators when we see our students graduate and those end of year activities. So that was memorable for me. I was very pleased to be able to do that then.
What's something that you're proud of the way you and your staff handled?
Tom: Well, I think all of it. I just remember being up here last year on March 15th on a Sunday afternoon. We gathered up here anticipating a school closure and working with this team of professionals. And to listen to our Assistant Superintendents and our Principals and our Special Ed Directors and everybody, our food service, leadership and budget office, transportation people, everybody just digging in and saying, “okay, we can do this, we can deal with this, and this is what we're going to do.” And then providing childcare, working with our nursing team and health officials, I'm just very proud of the work that our leadership team and our staff and our teachers have done to try to deal with this situation. And then, I'm proud of our students and our parents who have persevered through this. We've had some losses along the way and we're grieving those. And we're going to have some catch-up work to do with students who have fallen even further behind. We know that, and that's the thing that's tough right now for me is to look at that, but I'm very pleased with the ability of our team to be kind of hard-nosed and persistent and innovative and creative. And we set up a remote learning center over at Roosevelt Elementary School. We did that within a couple of weeks, and it would normally take us six months to a year to bring a program like that online at the most. So, I'm proud of that team, Ruth Uecker, our Assistant Superintendent for Elementary is phenomenal, that woman is absolutely incredible, the best that I've worked with. Heather Hoyer, our Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Schools, the same. These two women are seasoned, veteran, professional educators, and they really know their stuff. Brian Patrick, our Business Manager and our community who voted for a levy in the midst of COVID-19. We had moms and community members, business members, and so forth, pitching in to help us articulate the needs of the community, and we passed the levy.
Is there anything you wish that you and your staff had handled better in your time so far?
Tom: I go back to graduation last year, and that was one of the toughest decisions that we had to make. I wish I would have maybe waited a little longer before we came out with the initial announcements. Because we changed some things and it caused a lot of angst in the community. We got lots and lots of emails and feedback from parents and family members before we finally said, we’re going to allow a certain number of guests. So, I wish we would have waited a little bit longer on that decision.
When you were chosen to replace Tammy Lacey in 2019, you mentioned having an open-door policy. How do you feel you've done upholding that promise?
Tom: With COVID, we've had to have barriers in layers, right? And it's not the same. We try to use technologies, Zoom, and other things. I was on a Zoom meeting this afternoon, prior to you coming in with some community members on what's going on at the legislature right now and, and those kinds of things. So, we try to use technology to continue that open door concept. I like the face-to-face. I like having people in this room around the table, looking at each other, talking to one another about stuff that matters, things that matter to our community. And we had some equity issues and conversations this last year at the national level, at the state level, and at the community level and those kinds of conversations about how we're going to treat each other, how we're going to improve our work with different minority groups or different groups of people in our community. Those things have to happen around the table. And that's one of the things that I grieved the most about this is not being able to do that. I like that kind of interaction with other people. And then in the business community with our business partners, going out and talking to their lunch groups and so forth about our bond issue or levy issues, how we're doing with our taxpayer dollars, interacting with them. I'm anxious to get back out on that circuit of talking face-to-face with people.
How would you rate the district's handling of COVID-19 so far?
Tom: I would give us an A…..a B+ to an A. I'm sure that the remote learning thing has been highly problematic for teachers, kids, and parents, but I've talked to superintendents across the state. Every two weeks, I talked to my colleagues in the Double-A districts. And I've read the literature and the journals about superintendents and school districts across our country. Remote learning is not optimal. So, I think there's some things we can do better there, but I think, in retrospect, looking at how we work together in this school district with our community partners and our parents and our students and staff to deliver instruction during this time period and try to provide for athletic and activity events too…..sorry about the Christmas concerts, the holiday concerts and those things where kids and families and teachers and staff really liked to celebrate those times of the year. But for the most part, our folks have done an incredible job of being able to deal with those things. So, yeah, I think it's tough because it's easy to hear the negative feedback from parents, but essentially when you have to do the impossible. You can't please everyone. But you have to have the priorities of keeping the kids safe, but also education, and it's not been easy.
What are some things you hope to accomplish in your next 100 days?
Tom: Well, we've got a legislative session going on right now. So, we're monitoring the legislature and these different bills that are before the legislature. We've got a change in administration and the Governor's office and some political dynamics that affect schools, school funding, and COVID in its adverse effects. So, monitoring that, being involved in the legislative action, especially as it pertains to the schools and businesses here in Great Falls and across the state, continuing to ensure the health and safety of our kids and our staff, and monitoring the COVID situation. We're in the midst of vaccines right now. It's not happening as soon as people would like it to. We’re going to still be dealing with the effects of COVID for the next year, I would anticipate, so monitoring that, working to continue to ensure health and safety protocols in our schools, and then monitoring that and judging when it's appropriate to begin reducing some of the restrictions. So, the next 100 days are going to be around that, focusing on that academic achievement piece, then the stewardship and accountability, with some of the adverse effects of COVID we've seen impacting our enrollment, which drives revenue for our school district for this next year. So, as we're looking at budgets and how we're going to fund all of these programs in our general fund moving forward to next year, that's challenging. So, the stewardship and accountability for that. We still have facilities projects that are going on from our bond issue. So, by next January, we'll probably be talking to you about celebrating the end of those facilities projects.
Do you remember the first thoughts or thought you had when you first heard about COVID-19 that 2020?
Tom: Yeah, I was like, ‘this is kind of surreal.’ This is like something out of a movie, you know? You watch a movie on these worldwide disasters or crises, and you can read about it in the history books about the Spanish Flu or pandemics and other infectious outbreaks in other countries and so forth and historical pandemics. But to really experience one and go through this where people that you know and love and care about and you work within your community are actually in hospitals dying or have passed away, or you have family members who have been affected adversely by this virus. It was pretty daunting and surreal, I guess, were my first thoughts. And then, the anxiety and a little bit of adrenaline. ‘Okay, we’ve got to dig in and deal with this as a school district.’ We've got 10,500 kids here and 1,500 employees who are counting on us to come up with some answers. So, dig in and whatever it's going to take to deal with this newest challenge. Not anxiety, but adrenaline. “We have to dig in and get after this. I am so thankful. I couldn't do this work without this team of professional people. From our engineers and custodians, our tech department, and we had the cyber-attack and we just had people working each aspect of these problems and challenges. Our relationship with law enforcement, the Chamber of Commerce, the hospitals, the Board of Health. I mean, all of these different partners have been such a huge asset to me and to our team in terms of just being able to deal with the things that COVID has thrown at us and these other crises.