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GFPS trustee candidates make final pitches in public forum

Great Falls Public Schools (GFPS)
Posted at 10:57 PM, Apr 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-20 11:49:28-04

GREAT FALLS — With just two weeks remaining until Great Falls Public Schools hold their mail-in election for outgoing Trustee Teresa Schreiner’s seat on the Board of Trustees, five of the eight candidates fielded a series of questions in a live-streamed event on Monday night.

Some of the questions came from the viewers on Facebook, while others were predetermined. There are eight people vying for the soon-to-be-vacated seat, but only five were present on Monday night, and it was not immediately clear why the other three could not attend. Russell Herring, Scott Jablonski, Marlee Sunchild, Kevin Leatherbarrow, and Nathan Reiff sat around a table and took turns answering the questions in about a minute or less.

The questions started off relatively simple: “If elected, what would your top three priorities be?”

Nathan said recovering from the pandemic and ensuring that all available pandemic relief funds were allocated correctly was at the top of his list, along with making sure the district’s teachers feel supported and that they’re not feeling burnt out coming off of a challenging semester. Kevin mentioned technology and making sure that every student in the district has the adequate materials that they need to succeed. Marlee, who retired from teaching at Longfellow Elementary last spring, brought up the importance of recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers, an idea that she repeatedly went back to over the course of the roughly 90 minute forum. Scott also mentioned allocating relief funds correctly and making sure there are open lines of communication between the school board and the district’s parents, and Russell added in helping kids who may have fallen behind during the pandemic catch up academically, mental health in students, and also the allocation of relief funds.

Here’s a rundown of the other questions that the group discussed during the forum:

  • What are the biggest challenges facing school district over next 3 years?
    • Russell: Recovering from COVID-19 financially and, for students, academically
    • Scott: Catching up students after remote learning “slowed our kids’ learning process down”
    • Marlee: Meeting students where they are, find their needs, and go from there, and help them achieve the learning goals. Also, retaining highly qualified teachers
    • Kevin: Preparing for next few years and getting back what many students lost academically
    • Nathan: Giving kids the tools that they need to catch up and the teachers the support that they need (using the funds that are available)
  • What are the biggest strengths of the district?
    • Nathan: Tradition of excellence and culture in GFPS
    • Kevin: Excellent leadership and support system
    • Marlee: “We have the hardest working teachers, I truly believe, anywhere.” Great community, transparency, the relationship between teachers and community
    • Scott: The teachers
    • Russell: Diversity in the district, flexibility and adaptability during the pandemic, community involvement
  • Describe your understanding of the school funding system in Montana
    • Russell: “I have a lot to learn there.” “Is that going to be my strength? No. I will have stuff to learn.” “We need bipartisanship.”
    • Scott: “I don’t have a clue about our budget right now, which is probably a blessing.” Says he’ll bring a new perspective and learn from the bottom up. Says he’ll bring experience from running his own company and operating with that budget
    • Marlee: “I do know that a lot of our funding is based on the school legislature and it fluctuates….It’s never constant.” Says she supports paying teachers more
    • Kevin: “We’re really not going to know what we’re looking at until we get our hands dirty.” He adds that he runs his own business and manages a budget there.
    • Nathan: Understands that local school districts work with the state for funding.
  • How would you approach looking at the budget in terms of balancing costs and resources and gathering public opinions/input?
    • Nathan: “I think Great Falls is a very generous community when they understand the need.” “We need to make sure people know what our funding philosophy is.” Making sure they have good teachers and take care of them and be transparent with the public. “I do think Great Falls really does value their educational system.”
    • Kevin: “Listening to what the people want and bringing it to them and being transparent is totally possible.”
    • Marlee: Most important thing is putting the most money into what’s best for students, same with cuts and what impacts student learning. “We need to continue, as a district, to be transparent.” Breaking budgets down and answering questions for the public
    • Scott: Ask the public where they want to see those funds go and decide, as a board, what’s best for the students. “We have to test the waters and figure out where we best can take that money and invest it back into the school district.”
    • Russell: Gathering perspective and input. He says that people are more than welcome to come give input at school board meetings. Also, getting information in front of the most qualified people, teachers, staff, and current administrators are welcome to share ideas and needs. Students’ needs first, then teachers and administrators, all while being responsible with the money.
  • How do you think the district handled COVID-19 response and long-term impacts?
    • Russell: “They did the best that they could with the information they had at the time.” Says kids under 12 and elementary schools could have been handled differently, wish teachers had gotten vaccines on “day one”, and that could have been done better
    • Scott: At the beginning, they did what they were told to do with the system that they were in. “Mask mandate could have gone away as far as younger children in the elementary schools. Having these masks on them, all day long without breaks, is detrimental at this point.”
    • Marlee: “They did an absolutely fantastic job of pulling this together.” She points out that she was still teaching when the pandemic started. She adds that the board did a good job of talking to people in the town and getting input. “You’re never going to please everybody.”
    • Kevin: “They have done a fantastic job of trying to keep it together….Janitors, right down to our teachers.”
    • Nathan: “They did a great job. I’ve taught online, it’s very different than teaching in person.” Flexibility, helping teachers, and adaptability have been good.
  • Thoughts on requiring masks in schools moving forward?
    • Nathan: “Most of the science says that COVID is airborne.” Masks have been successful. How long they remain required depends on kids getting vaccinated and local case count. “Follow the science.”
    • Kevin: “I stand on leaving it up to the parents. Same thing with our teachers,” he says, meaning vaccinations and masks.
    • Marlee: Look at the science and vaccine numbers and keep everyone safe.
    • Scott: “It should be a personal choice, then by all means do that. But if you don’t want to wear a mask, you shouldn’t be forced to wear a mask. He claims that the vaccine is not FDA approved. “The science has changed so many times in the last year.”
    • Russell: It should not be a personal choice. Says he is very in favor of continued mask usage in schools. “We’re all part of a society,” he says, and explains that he believes that everyone has a responsibility to keep the person next to them safe and healthy
  • Should government class be mandatory as a senior?
    • Russell: Absolutely
    • Scott: Yes, but it all depends on how the curriculum is going to run
    • Marlee: 100%
    • Kevin: Yes, and at a younger age as well
    • Nathan: Yes
  • Should mental health screening be available through public schools?
    • Nathan: Yes. “Kids are going through a lot.” Confidential, keeps kids safe. “If they aren’t there mentally, it’s really hard for them to learn. I think it keeps everyone on the path that they need to be on.”
    • Kevin: No. Separation of mental health and education
    • Marlee: 100%, “Our school counselors are some of the most important people in that building. You can’t learn how to do you multiplication facts if you have so much emotional trauma that it’s impeding your learning.”
    • Scott: No. Separation of mental health and education. “Our counselors have a lot to deal with as it is…..Family issues….” “Where does our budget play into this?”
    • Russell: Through school counselor of expansion of program? Funding. “Not a fun time to be a kid. They don’t have the same upbringings that we had. They have a lot on their plates.” “If the only place that they can get mental health help is at school, then go for it.”
  • Should the presence of SRO’s in GFPS increase, decrease, or stay the same?
    • Nathan: Stay the same
    • Kevin: ”Do we want law enforcement being involved in schools? Sure. Do we want them on-site? That’s debatable.” They do a great job but have to reexamine why they are there.
    • Marlee: Stay the same. Relationships with troubled kids, protection to teachers when needed, their main job is to build relationships with students to shed a positive light on law enforcement
    • Scott: Stay the same
    • Russell: Stay the same, and ask them if they need any assistance or what could make their jobs easier
  • How would you interact with staff to learn about district operations, education regulations, and stay informed?
    • Russell: “I’ve always believed in management by walking around. I like to be available to the people that I’m supposed to be helping.” Ask teachers, survey teachers, talk to teachers, and get ideas from them.
    • Scott: “The teachers are the best ones to be talking to.”
    • Marlee: “Talk to the teachers, talk to the staff, talk to the admin.” Go to the events, see what works and what doesn’t work, be a part of the community.
    • Kevin: “Be involved at all times.” Working with the people in the trenches, don’t do it at 6,000 feet.
    • Nathan: “Finding people, talking to them, being more casual with them.” Have more conversations with them.
  • How would you address concerns that are brought to you?
    • Nathan: Depends on the concern. Always be aware of what’s going on whenever possible.
    • Kevin: Open-door communications with administrators. Listening to concerns, bringing it to the proper people that we need to. Depends on the policy in question.
    • Marlee: Keep the lines of communication open. “We don’t work individually, a board is a board, it’s a collective of people.” Make sure everyone understands the chain of command.
    • Scott: “We’re just one group of people that can only oversee what we’re able to do, and that’s just the policy itself.”
    • Russell: Address them as a board. “We’re running for one seat on an open board, but it is a board. You don’t get to be an island.”
  • What can be done to address the achievement gap, particularly with low-income students?
    • Russell: Funding for summer school, before and after-school programs, find government money to apply to the problem
    • Scott: Access to technology, getting the right equipment to each child, funding that 1-1 learning environment
    • Marlee: Address the problem with retaining high-quality teachers because teaching students of poverty is a “whole different ballgame”, training teachers to deal with those high-poverty students. “It is a whole different gig to teach students who live in poverty. It’s very rewarding to teach those kids, but it’s very different.”
    • Kevin: Increased resources for teachers, spending CARES Act money to get students the technology that they need
    • Nathan: “When kids are hungry, when they’re stressed at home, when they’re dealing with that extra burden, it’s really hard for them to learn.” Meal programs, training teachers, more resources for those groups since more time is needed and more face-to-face time.
  • How would you handle any conflict of interest that arose while you were on the Board?
    • Nathan: Asking others and making the conflict known, transparency, address it.
    • Kevin: “I won’t be able to vote on some things. I own an educational service here in Great Falls, I’m not going to hide that.”
    • Marlee: Transparency and being upfront.
    • Scott: Transparency and “recuse ourselves” from potential problematic areas.
    • Russell: Remember that you represent the district and the board, recuse yourself when necessary.
  • Closing statements
    • Russell: “I threw my hat in the ring because I practice primary care in Great Falls and I’ve been dealing with COVID the past year and a half.” Thought he might be able to bring the health perspective to the board, says pandemic is not over, wants to see students and teachers and staff succeed, learn from other successful school districts instead of competing with them.
    • Scott: “I just want to be a presence and help out where I can. I’m kind of the guy that’s looking through the window from the outside.” Just wants to help students and staff make it through each school year for the next 3 years.
    • Marlee: Wants to give back to the school district and the community because they have given so much to her.
    • Kevin: Says he wants to make sure the Board is moving progress in the district forward, and that he has a passion for education and learning.
    • Nathan: He says his daughter has gotten a lot from school district, and now he wants to give back. “I think our schools are something that makes this town great.”