An Embarrassment of Riches

by Rebecca Schmitz

Sure, you could say Lee Newspapers’ article this morning about the four Democratic candidates for state school superintendent was journalism lite, but as the editor’s note mentioned, there’s more to come. Thank goodness. I came away from Charles S. Johnson’s piece with a lot of questions, chiefly because all the candidates–Representative Holly Raser, Senator Sam Kitzenberg, Claudette Morton and Denise Juneau–are all incredibly qualified individuals. Any one of them would be an asset to the Office of Public Instruction. So, I’m hoping our readers can help.

Because I don’t have children, I don’t pay enough attention to local and state education issues like a responsible taxpayer should. Honestly, the only experience I’ve had–don’t laugh–with the minutiae of school administration was during my final year attending Juan Crespi Middle School in El Sobrante, California, (“Home of the Conquistadors”. Representar!) when my mother was president of the PTA. Then I got to hear about the issues every night for nearly ten months.

This ignorance is why I’m asking you guys for some insight. (You don’t have to have a child currently enrolled in one of Montana’s schools, but if it helps answer my questions, great.) If you’ve already decided to vote for one of these four fabulous candidates, which one and why?

  1. A lot of them will be at Candidates Gone Wild in Missoula on Thursday — Elks Lodge — 6pm! Also — Attorney General candidates.

  2. JC

    Rebecca, it does seem like an embarrassment of riches, but OPI is a different kind of elected position. And it needs the right kind of person at the helm. My sister worked at OPI for many years, and I had to listen to her grumble about the politics there, ad nauseum. I’ve also got a kid in high school.

    First off, I look to the reason why we have 4 dems running. Obviously two of them are termed-out legislators. And both of them (Raser and Kitzenberg) have no school administrative experience. Above all, the superintendent needs to be an exemplary administrator, and this favors Juneau and Morton. A politician without a strong administrative education and experience likely won’t be looked on favorably, or do well in the position, unless they are quick learners.

    But the Super also needs to be political force, and be a strong advocate in the Legislature. This would seem to favor Kitzenberg and Raser, but this comes with a caveat. Past legislative experience brings with it much baggage, as the OPI office has been at odds with the Leg over the years.

    To Kitzenberg and Raser I would ask, how are you going to overcome past hostilities between the two entities–particularly when the role of legislator is often opposite the role of a Superintendent. One needs to balance budgets, and hence limit OPI’s budget, and the other is to maximize budget in the face of lawsuits over adequate funding levels. How will they expect budget increases to be funded? That is the favorite question the leg asks of OPI. And it puts OPI at odds with the rest of state government.

    To all of them I ask, what will you do if the current national recession catches up with Montana, and the Leg cuts the schools budget? Where will you cut? This has been one of the most ugly parts of the job, particularly during the republican governor’s era, which continually snipped at the OPI’s budget. Cuts are painful, and affect constituents differently. Where do the candidates draw equitable school funding lines? Where exactly do they sit on the current six year-old school funding lawsuit?

    Being an OPI employee underneath the Superintendent is not a pretty place to be. You have an office full of administrative professionals, and a head who is a politician. The Superintendent who can best lead the OPI staff–the character and style of leadership–is most important. I don’t know enough about how any of the candidates would lead to make a call here. I do know that in the past, there has been a lot of friction in OPI. Some of that may have been driven by funding cuts, but still…

    Another thought would be age and gender. OP has for many years been looked at as an elective seat launching pad for further political forays. Of the four, only Juneau seems to be in that boat, with Kitzenberg & Raser already having taken a dip into political waters, and Morton taking perhaps her first and last.

    If I were to just look at resume, I’d have to say that Juneau comes out on top with an excellent mix of experience at OPI, youth, education, and the opportunity to bring a fresh Native American perspective to OPI and state government. On top of that, if she had further political aspirations, after 4-8 successful years at OPI, she would be well positioned to take on another major statewide seat like Governor, Senator, or Rep.

    I think that cultivating bright young, aspiring candidates at OPI to be a great opportunity. Nancy Keenan (OPI Super from ’89-00), used the position as a launch pad for running for U.S House. After she was defeated, she moved on to DC to run NARAL.

    It’ll be interesting to see the positions that each takes on the issues between now and the primary.

  3. That was exactly the kind of extensive answer I was looking for, JC. Thanks!

    And thanks for letting everyone know about Candidates Gone Wild, Matt.

  4. JC

    One more thing. The OPI Superintendent sits on the State Land Board. How the candidate views that responsibility extends way beyond the traditional role of state lands to provide moneys for public schools.

    It encompasses a wide range of environmental issues like fire fighting policy, endangered species, old-growth management and wilderness/roadless values, access, off-road vehicular use, etc.

  5. Rebecca, I wrote on this a bit last night. There are some obvious reasons why having a long political history might be problematic. Juneau on the other hand has the most experience inside the OPI, and Morton has a long background in administration. One could say that these two actually have a better shot at developing good working relationships with the legislature.

    With that said, it is good to have the kinds wealth of choices we have.

  6. Well duh, you knew I wrote about this, you linked to it.

    Silly Shane! Blogs are for grown ups who can read.

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