Jeanne Joscelyn and Ross Best are like conversational pad thai.
Pensive and visibly cautious, Best chooses his words carefully and speaks with measured cadence. Joscelyn, meanwhile, exudes enthusiasm, occasionally rupturing into excited diatribes before eventually catching herself. “Sorry,” she says, half embarrassed. “I talked your ear off.”
The pair’s message, however, is one in the same. Joscelyn and Best serve as the mouthpiece for what’s informally known as “the Opposition,” a group of Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) district residents highly critical of the board of trustees for its practice of leasing closed school buildings to private competition. The Opposition’s latest battles focus on Prescott, a Rattlesnake neighborhood middle school closed in 2004 and leased out to the Missoula International School that same year for less than $1 per square foot.
One year remains on the International School’s five-year lease, but the MCPS board is already talking renewal. The topic first came up during a June 10 public meeting of the trustees, but a lack of quorum prevented the vote. With MCPS still working on a building appraisal, Opponents complain that trying to rush ahead a lease renegotiation now would be irresponsible.
“You are trustees—entrusted with public school buildings. Your behavior has not been worthy of trust,” Best railed at the last board meeting. “It has, in fact, been disgraceful and this is shaping up to be one more disgraceful action.”
Joscelyn and Best suspect interested parties wanted to get the deal sewn up before the July retirement of Superintendent Jim Clark, a proponent of dispensing schools deemed as excess. But the superintendent says the June 10 agenda item intended to conditionally approve the lease and then let MCPS iron out details later in the year when the appraisal is finished. “We feel we’ll have all the documents by that point,” Clark adds.
The Opposition came together during the similar Roosevelt School controversy, in which MCPS came under fire for the 2005 sale of another closed school to a Catholic education foundation after it had passed on a separate and higher offer. District Court judge Ed McLean ruled last year that opponents of that sale—officially bannered under the nonprofit Good Schools Missoula—missed their legal window on challenging the board decision to sell Roosevelt. The volunteer advocacy group was then ordered to pay $41,000 in legal fees for bringing frivolous litigation.
Trying to avoid a similar result, Opponents began tracking the paperwork on Prescott back before its board-ordered closure. Matching that information with trends from the Roosevelt sale, they believe the district will soon offer the International School a new lease on Prescott with the option to buy. In anticipation of the maneuver, the group submitted a petition with 160 signatures asking the MCPS board to keep the non-district use of Prescott and other closed schools limited to short-term and competitive leases.
The Opponents are concerned that selling schools like Prescott leaves the district standing short should it one day need more classroom space. The idea of public support for the privatization of local education also doesn’t sit well with many residents. UM mathematician David Patterson, a critic of the 2004 Prescott deal, points out that cheap leases don’t make fiscal sense when one takes into account the amount districts lose when students defect to private schools.
“There’s no rocket science here,” Patterson says. “Doing nice things for private schools is not a part of the public interest.”
District records show the current contract on Prescott costs the International School about half as much per square foot as Walla Walla University’s lease of the nearby Mount Jumbo School.
“We recognize the current base price is low based on the market value,” says Missoula International School trustee Matt Lunder. “The problem with their argument is that it assumes if the board voted to not extend our lease that the Missoula International School would say ‘Shucks, lets just send all of our kids to public school.’ We would just go somewhere else.”
Yet, Opposition members’ beef goes deeper still. They allege MCPS’s long-standing trend of favorable treatment toward the private school is a direct result of special interest engineering—something Best calls “rigged transactions.”
Joscelyn points to one person in particular: former International School board president and current MCPS chair Toni Rehbein. Though Rehbein recused herself from both the 2004 lease vote and the June 10 renewal item, she advocated extending the International School a new lease at various meetings and once queried publicly whether the lessee would go for purchasing Prescott outright.
The Opposition argues the ethical problems speak for themselves, though the situation does not technically constitute a violation of office. According to county attorneys, only official action can be cited as a conflict of interest under Montana code.
Rehbein says the allegations stem from misperceptions of comments she made while on the board—most notably the sale inquiry, which, she explains, was simply an effort to move forward the conversation.
“When I was involved in the Missoula International School, my daughter was in preschool,” Rehbein says. “I don’t have any personal interest in it at all.”
Other MCPS trustees say the Opposition’s attacks on Rehbein and others too often verge on callousness. Public record packets from the June 10 meeting are indeed fat with Opposition-submitted documents criticizing current and former board members. One International School report from 2000 shows Rehbein’s name circled numerous times and tagged with the commentary, “To whom is Toni Rehbein loyal?”
Board member Scott Bixler argues that unless Opponents can explicitly link Rehbein to taking action in favor of the International School, the accusations need to stop. “Members of the Opposition would stoop so low as to what appears to be character assassination by innuendo,” he says.
“The facts don’t support that. It’s not character assassination—we have documents,” Joscelyn responds. “This is just the truth.”