The challengers 

Three newcomers vie for school board seats

Since the Missoula County Public School board voted in January to award Superintendent Alex Apostle a 13 percent raise—eventually boosting his pay to $200,000 a year—members of the Missoula community have been finding ways to decry the decision. In late January, a Hellgate High School student started an online petition calling for Apostle to reject the money and for the entire board to be "re-evaluated" before the May election. To date, more than 2,000 people have signed. Then, in February and March, hundreds attended the public comment portions of school board meetings to express their dissatisfaction. And on March 21, Missoula businessman John Suprock ran an advertisement in the Missoulian offering $10,000 to anyone who sought to unseat MCPS trustees in the upcoming election. Specifically, it stated, "Alex Must Go," and "Let's get some common sense back on the School Board."

Now, with school board election ballots due May 7, only four of the nine candidates running for seats on the board are incumbents. And in the most visible race representing both the elementary and secondary portions of the district, three of the five candidates—Diane Lorenzen, Michael Beers and Julie Tompkins—may represent the change Suprock and others have been crying for.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Newcomers Michael Beers, Julie Tompkins and Diane Lorenzen are seeking to unseat incumbents Scott Bixler and Joe Toth on the Missoula County school board.

Lorenzen graduated from Hellgate in 1979. She went to Stanford University before serving two years with the Peace Corps in Nepal. After living outside of Helena and serving on the Jefferson County school board, she and her family moved back to Missoula, where she has a daughter at Washington Middle School.

Of all the problems facing MCPS today, she feels most stem from the fact that the district only "has a fixed amount of money, and if you put it in a program it has to come out of one." But she says the current administration's efforts to obtain grants from groups like the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation to start new programs like Big Sky's International Baccalaureate are short-term solutions with dubious long-term implications.

"I think we need to be very careful about starting new things with grant money," she says. "They're new, it's exciting, but they're difficult to maintain. What happens when the grant runs out?"

Like Lorenzen, Beers is a Hellgate alum who graduated in 2001. He says he is eager to give back to the system he credits with getting him to graduation. Beers was born with VACTERL association, a condition that can cause limb defects and cardiovascular anomalies. He says if not for the guidance and support of his teachers he's not sure where he would be.

"On paper, I should not have succeeded. Whether because of disability, family income, being adopted—all these things are red flags," he says. "But my teachers went above and beyond. It took a village to get me to graduation."

Beers does not portend to have answers—he admits to having little experience in managing a school district—but he feels some things should be done differently. He says the current board too often votes unanimously.

"I want to know someone on the board is raising the issues I want raised," he says. "And not just falling in line."

Tompkins feels her point of view would also add a new dimension to the trustees. Tompkins was born in Michigan, where her father worked for more than 20 years at General Motors. She says that her "strong working class background" would inform her service, and she would give voice to the "under-represented demographic ... of lower-to-middle income families."

"There's this perception that because a school is located in a specific neighborhood, it doesn't require programs that serve low-income students," she says. "But there are pockets of working poor and college students with kids throughout the district who can't afford to pay for extracurricular sports or art, music and science programs. I'd like to see those activities once again be a feature of the school day."

Though Lorenzen, Beers and Tompkins come from different backgrounds, there is no doubt that all of their candidacies originated when the current board voted to give Apostle a raise. Tompkins calls it "a horrible decision on so many levels," while Lorenzen says Apostle's salary should be more in line with the national average, which in Missoula, she says, should be roughly $140,000, or twice as much as the highest-paid teacher.

Beers is not as vocal about the board's decision; he admits he doesn't have all of the information the trustees had when they voted. But he did find himself confounded during a recent conversation with a community member regarding something else that is on the school election ballot: roughly $800,000 in annual district technology levies. The community member asked Beers why the people of Missoula should have to pay for the increased funding while the superintendent is about to make twice as much as the state's governor. It made Beers wonder.

"If we needed more money to buy new broadband, why did we give Apostle a new salary?" he asks. "I think it's a good question."

It's one he soon hopes to answer.

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