Jim Clark has made it through the first major obstacle in his new assignment: the first day of school.
Monday was the first day on the job for Missoula County Public Schools’ new superintendent. After a full day of meeting with administrators, touring schools, and giving television interviews, Clark sat down with the Independent to talk about his past experiences and the challenges ahead.
Clark comes to Missoula from Torrington, Wyo. He is up front about the fact that he has much to learn about Missoula. “The first few weeks here will be very full of meetings and getting to know the district,” he says.
Torrington is a rural district where there is less than one student per square mile. Prior to his work there, however, Clark spent 25 years working in schools in Casper. From what he has seen so far, he thinks Missoula schools face similar challenges to what he has dealt with in the past. Wyoming schools have faced declining enrollment and underfunding, he says, and he has worked with large school boards similar to Missoula’s.
School funding has become an increasingly hot topic in the state, with local school boards complaining that they are shouldering too much of the funding burden. According to a recent Op-Ed piece by Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Linda McCulloch, the state paid 71 percent of school operations costs in 1991. By next year it will have dropped to 60 percent.
“The result has been to shift the burden to the local property taxpayers and continually shrink the state funds necessary to provide for a quality education for all Montana’s children,” McCulloch wrote.
The effects can be seen in Missoula, where three school levies are on the ballot this year. The levies would increase property taxes to put money into school general funds and pay for new technology.
Clark says he is studying up on Montana’s funding system. In Wyoming the situation is different because property taxes are lower and funding comes mainly from other tax bases.
He says he will meet the challenge by applying the experience of his years in education. The son of a minister, Clark spent much of his youth traveling around the Midwest. He went to school in California and began teaching in Utah before settling in Wyoming. In his years of being a teacher and an administrator he has developed a philosophy which he has kept close to through the years.
“The biggest part about being a superintendent is to be the keeper of the dream,” Clark says. When making day-to-day decisions, “sometimes you have to back up and say, ‘What is the dream?’”