Head of the class 

State superintendent Denise Juneau's improbable rise is impossible to ignore

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But while the event is focused on International Women's Day, Juneau is more concerned with the day's developments in the state House of Representatives. Earlier, the House Appropriations Committee heard Juneau's budget pitch for funding Montana Public Schools. She's asking the legislature to invest $1.5 billion into the K-12 education system this session.

While mingling at the fundraiser, she mines lawmakers for more information about the fate of her request. She learns that efforts to trim her budget will likely be rolled out the following Monday. At one point she lingers in a corner of the room with first-term Democratic Rep. Kim Dudik of Missoula. The women attended the University of Montana School of Law together and Dudik now sits on the House Appropriations Committee that helps decide her budget's fate.

As the event comes to a close, Juneau almost collides with Gov. Steve Bullock in a doorway between the living room and dining room. After hearing from legislators all evening, Juneau expresses concern about where her budget stands and the upcoming vote.

click to enlarge Stan and Carol Juneau with their children, Ron and Denise. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DENISE JUNEAU
  • Photo courtesy of Denise Juneau
  • Stan and Carol Juneau with their children, Ron and Denise.

"I'll have a bad day on Monday, I think," Juneau tells the governor. "I'll call you about it."

Juneau is fiercely protective of her budget and passionate about her work as state superintendent. She says it was public education, after all, that helped set her on a path that would take her to Montana State University, Harvard, UM Law and eventually lead to stuffed mushrooms and fruit salad at the Governor's Mansion. As Juneau told Democratic National Convention delegates in September, "Teachers are sometimes the only ones who tell our children that they can go from an Indian reservation to the Ivy League."

It's because of her personal history through public education that she so aggressively defends its funding. She admits that the issue causes her to lose her cool now and then, mostly when she feels that something is out of her control, like when lawmakers cut her budget. "Five minute rants, maybe, but then I'm done," Juneau says. "I have my little tantrum, and then I'm good."

The best example came during the 2011 legislative session as fiscal conservatives rolled out a budget proposal that moved to cut education spending. Juneau reacted strongly, and her colorful language was quoted throughout state media.

"I'm excited for them to wave the magic handkerchief and pull a rabbit out of the hat to come up with their vision for education," she was quoted as saying in the Billings Gazette. "Hopefully their rabbit may provide a plan. What I'm afraid of is the rabbit may not have an eye for a vision."

Juneau's Helena office now features a stuffed rabbit perched inside a black top hat. It was a gift from her staff.

Juneau's communication director, Allyson Hagen, chooses her words carefully when asked if her boss has a temper. "High expectations," Hagen says. "That's how I would describe it."

In 2011, Juneau's "high expectations" grabbed the nation's attention, when The New York Times reported that she was leading an "educational insurrection" against the federal government's unpopular No Child Left Behind Act, passed into law in 2002 by George W. Bush.

In April, Juneau had sent a protest letter to officials in Washington, D.C., decrying the "strict across the board, one-size-fits-all" mandates included in No Child Left Behind. As the Times reported, "Six weeks later, she hosted a meeting of school chiefs from 10 rural states and passed around her defiant letter. 'We're not asking for permission,' Ms. Juneau told the group. 'We're just telling them we won't raise our annual objectives this year.'"

Despite threats of federal funding cuts, Juneau stood her ground. Superintendents in Idaho and Utah in the coming weeks sent similarly defiant letters to federal officials. The standoff was eventually called off when the Department of Education reportedly discovered that Montana hadn't taken advantage of an earlier opportunity to adjust its testing targets.

As Juneau told The New York Times, "I consider that a win."

•••

Denise Juneau comes from a line of tough women. Her mother, Carol, was born on North Dakota's Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in 1945. It was a time of upheaval. The Mandan, Hidatsa and Akira tribes of Fort Berthold had only begun to bounce back from the lingering effects of federal expansion, notably a smallpox epidemic that nearly eliminated the entire Mandan tribe.

After settling on the reservation in the mid-19th century, the tribes had begun a revival, planting crops in the fertile soil near Minot on the banks of the Missouri River. They also raised horses and cattle. The revival was short-lived.

In 1944, Congress approved legislation that directed the Army Corps of Engineers to dam the Missouri River on Fort Berthold to help facilitate irrigation. According to a 1948 report from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the problem was the plan necessitated flooding "the best lands of the Fort Berthold Indians."

click to enlarge Denise Juneau in her Helena office. On one of her walls she displays an issue of Oprah magazine that named her one of the nation’s 12 elected officials most likely to “Get things done.” - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Denise Juneau in her Helena office. On one of her walls she displays an issue of Oprah magazine that named her one of the nation’s 12 elected officials most likely to “Get things done.”

In May of 1948, when tribal chairman George Gillette arrived in Washington, D.C., to consent to the taking, Carol Juneau was 3 years old. Newspapers reported that Gillette signed the documents in tears, saying, ''Right now, the future does not look too good for us.''

Indigenous people weren't uniformly granted the right to vote until the mid-1960s, leaving little recourse against such incursions. Carol Juneau's mother and her friends and family on Fort Berthold could only watch hopelessly as their agricultural land and precious timber stock were submerged under water.

Carol Juneau says that despite the upheaval, or perhaps because of it, her mother made a point to ensure that each of her 10 children received an education.

"I often wonder how my mom provided for us," Carol Juneau says. "We all went to school."

Seeing few options amid the grinding poverty on Fort Berthold, Carol left North Dakota to finish high school in California, where her older sister had been relocated through a federal program that moved some 100,000 American Indians to urban centers. The relocation program marked an attempt to assimilate indigenous people into the dominant culture.

Carol later attended a vocational school in Kansas. It was there that she met her future husband, Stan Juneau, a Blackfeet from Montana. The couple married and on April 5, 1967, Carol gave birth to her dark-haired and blue-eyed daughter, Denise.

Carol and Stan moved the family to Montana, where they both attended college. In 1980, Carol earned a master's degree in education from the University of Montana. She and her husband would both champion the value of education to overcome the challenges faced by the rural poor.

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