School Board: The Next Generation 

How grassroots efforts mowed down the opposition in the election

The message from last week’s school board and mill levy election couldn’t have been clearer if it been written in large block letters on a chalkboard: Missoula cares about its public schools, but business-as-usual just won’t cut it anymore.

Both elementary and secondary mill levies passed by solid margins. And while the 21 percent voter turnout in the May 8 election for the Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) board of trustees will never be held up as the epitome of what representative democracy is capable of, it did prove that progressive grassroots organizers in Missoula are a force to be reckoned with.

In a mid-year election held on a gorgeous spring day, the School Board Vote Network—a coalition that included such groups as Save Neighborhood Schools, ASUM, Smart Growth Advocates, the Missoula Green Party and The New Party—managed to turn out close to 4,000 more voters than last year, including at least 1,000 voters who have never cast a vote before in a school board election. This in an election that in past years was lucky to nudge one in six voters to the polls.

In the weeks leading up to the election, ASUM volunteers called more than 1,000 University of Montana students in the dorms and married student housing. The Missoula New Party probably called another 1,000 homes, the Network closer to 2,000. By conservative estimates, nearly half of all voters in this election received at least one phone call.

With recent school closures proving to be the lightning rod that ignited voter dissatisfaction, progressives effectively targeted their efforts in low- and moderate-income communities that were most affected: The neighborhoods surrounding Emma Dickinson, Lowell and Roosevelt schools, the Northside and the Lower Rattlesnake, where the impending (though far from certain) closure of Prescott Elementary became a major issue in this race.

“They’re the populations where the decisions have impacted the most,” says incoming elementary board trustee Colleen Rogers. “That’s the population that really feels like their voice isn’t being heard at all. Things are happening to them and they’re feeling powerless.”

Not for long. Although school board elections are non-partisan races, the three progressive candidates—Rogers, incumbent Suzette Dussault and newcomer David Merrill—essentially ran together on one ticket, clustering their lawn signs together all over town. Merrill’s campaign included an effort they called “Be One of 400,” referring to the estimated number of votes needed to elect a progressive majority to the board. A cadre of Merrill supporters even agreed to each turn out 10 new voters.

“What really made the difference in this election was that we had so much grassroots support,” says Merrill’s campaign manager, Briel Johnson. “We had kids on campus handing out fliers, we had people all over town talking about the school board. We had a lot of people power.”

Merrill’s success was probably the most impressive school board victory in recent memory. A resident of Missoula for only a year, Merrill, a self-declared “Green” (the first Green Party candidate ever elected in Montana), has since immersed himself in local progressive causes, having launched the once-a-month Conservation Roundtable luncheons, founded a new environmental group, Stop Global Warming Now, and joined Missoula Smart Growth Advocates.

But Merrill is no greenhorn to school issues. His nine years of teaching experience in disadvantaged schools in New York likely played a role in his drawing the endorsement of Missoula’s teachers’ union, which is fairly unheard-of for a newcomer.

“I have been here only one year, and I think that tended to work in my favor because there was a strong sense among significant sectors of the community that there needed to be fresh insights,” says Merrill. “That can be much easier for someone who’s relatively new to the scene.”

Since their victory, all three candidates have voiced similar priorities: Revisiting the decision to close Prescott School, reviewing the draft school budget (which doesn’t have to be adopted until August), and opening up better lines of communications with the public.

“I really believe that there just needs to be a very different process,” says Dussault. “More accountability in decision-making, more long-range planning and a much more open process.”

“More than having a specific agenda, I think we bring a different style to the process,” says Rogers. Responding to rumors that the new board members are planning major changes in administrative staff, she says, “I’m not jumping out of the chute with any set plans. My set plan is changing how the process works and opening it up.”

That said, a few of the old ways are likely to be tossed out, such as the “three-minute rule,” which restricted trustees’ comments and debate to three minutes. In addition, says Merrill, the administration shouldn’t expect its decisions to be rubber-stamped anymore.

“I reject that philosophy of service on the school board,” says Merrill. “I really feel that that attitude leads to bad decisions, especially in something as complex as a school board, and especially in tight budgetary times.”

Merrill has also made it a priority to review the district’s energy audits, saying that now may be the time for the district to consider a more aggressive energy conservation policy, such as installing more energy-efficient windows and replacing the 1930s-era boiler at Hellgate High School.

But all three warn that community expectations shouldn’t run too high.

“Change doesn’t happen overnight,” says Rogers. “It happens a little bit at a time.”

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