With a list of set questions and prepared answers, the Ennis School Board candidates met with the public Monday night and answered questions about school funding, teacher salaries and changes they’d like to see in the school district.
The forum was the only opportunity voters had to see both incumbent Brett Owens and challenger Lisa Frye together and nearly 100 people attended the function that was sponsored by the Madison Valley Education Association, which is the local teacher’s union. The forum was held in the cafeteria at the new school.
The forum was moderated by teacher Jay Fredrickson, who praised both candidates for running for the office and the audience for attending.
“Thank you for coming out,” Fredrickson said. “Thank you for caring about our school.”
The forum consisted of 10 questions from the MVEA that were provided to the candidates well in advance of the meeting. This part of the forum didn’t allow for candidates to really respond to each other, but to simply address the questions asked. Following those questions, Fredrickson opened the forum to the audience to ask their questions.
Frye first came to the Madison Valley for a wedding in 2001, she moved here in 2003.
“What I found is a community that’s friendly and outgoing with a rich cultural heritage,” she said in answering the first question, which was about the candidate’s backgrounds.
Frye has two children in the school system. Running for the school board is her way of giving back and an effort to bring new leadership to the school district, which is sorely needed, Frye said.
“I feel I can bring a new set of eyes to critical issues going forward,” she said. “I truly feel it’s time I step up to the plate and give back to the community I love.”
Owens was raised in the Madison Valley and graduated from high school here. He went to Montana State University and earned an engineering degree, but what he really wanted to do was fly. He became a pilot and enlisted in the Air Force, which is where he met his wife Rita.
He retired from the Air Force in 2007 and moved his family back to the Madison Valley to take over his father’s ranch near McAllister. He has four children, two of which have already graduated from Ennis.
Like Frye, Owens ran for the school board three years ago because he wanted to give back to the community. Through the years of being in the military, he and his family had experienced many different types of school systems around the world and he thought his experience would be an asset to the school district.
“I just want to make sure our kids have a quality education system,” Owens said.
In a series answers to questions about their goals for the school district, both short and long term, and the role of the school board, Frye and Owens illustrated that they see some things in a similar light, but differ on key points.
Frye repeatedly pointed to her concerns with how the school is funded and the disparity between teacher and administrator salaries. The school board must be transparent with the public about all aspects of funding, she said.
“The school board sets the tone for leadership,” Frye said. “We can do better.”
The new school wasn’t built ethically, she said. The collection of money for the building should have been a decision put before the voters. The board could have done it in a way that would have resulted in the same outcome – building a new school without a bond.
By paying for the new school without passing a bond or levy, the school board was able to save taxpayers money – about $4.1 million, Owens said in response to a question from the audience about how the school board was saving money during these tough economic times.
Budgeting issues are always tough, he said. State funding for schools is still up in the air and the school board is currently negotiating contracts with teachers. Owens is on the negotiating team for the board.
“We need to make sure we can retain and attract quality educators,” he said.
Compared with other schools in the area, teachers in Ennis are paid well, Owens said. But teacher’s contracts are negotiated between the teacher’s union and the school board and changes to those contracts come through negotiations. He was open to looking at pay increases for teachers and is certainly willing to look at ways to reduce the cost of health insurance for the staff.
“I would be willing to work right after the election,” he said.
Frye wants to look specifically at what administrators in the school are making and address the disparity in pay between them and the teachers. It may mean that Ennis has to trim down the size of the administrative staff, she said.
She also had issue with the current general fund levy being put before voters. The school district is asking voters to support a $103,000 general fund mill levy.
However, the school has about $700,000 in its budget reserves and there’s no need to go to voters for a levy or to talk about the possibility of cuts to teaching staff.
“This school district is not broke. The general fund is not broke,” Frye said. “We have the money. It’s in reserves and it should be utilized for the teachers.”
The candidates were also asked about the role of the superintendent in regards to the school board.
“The superintendent works at the school board’s leisure,” Frye said. “He can be fired at any time.”
The superintendent is an adviser to the board, not a filter between the board and the community, she said.
“Ditto,” Owens said when it was his turn to answer. “I agree.”
The superintendent works for the school board and shouldn’t impede anyone in the community from approaching board members with their thoughts, ideas or concerns he said.
Both candidates also pledged to improve the transparency of the school board.
Owens wants to make sure meeting notices are posted in a variety of places so the public is clear about when meetings are held. He also echoed one of Frye’s suggestions, which is to post all the minutes from past meetings on the school’s website. These changes could be made immediately and in some ways are already being made.
Frye would like to see the school district move its funds back to the county. Most schools in the state have their county administer their finances, which essentially means they hold the tax money collected for the schools and when schools want to make payments for things, they issue warrants to the county and the county sends out checks. Last year the Ennis School District pulled their finances out from under the county, which is their right.
However, the move coming when it did certainly didn’t give the appearance of transparency, Frye said.
She would also like to see the school district rotate auditors, rather than having the same auditor look over the books year after year.
Both candidates were also confronted with questions that led to their apologizing.
When he ran for school board three years ago, Owens had pledged to visit teacher classrooms as a school board member. Former Ennis teacher Dusty Schrock asked Owens to report back about what he found.
“I’m sad to report I broke my promise and I apologize for that,” he said. “My intentions were meant well but I never made it through.”
Frye was confronted with an issue concerning her campaign and some language on her campaign mailings that contained the late Bob Cleverley’s name. Cleverley was a teacher at Ennis High School and well respected in the community. Todd Durham asked Frye if she had asked for permission from Cleverley’s family to use his name.
Frye said she hadn’t and when she found out the family was upset, she wrote them a letter of apology. She said she knew Cleverley and respected him and didn’t mean any harm when she used a quote from him on her campaign literature.
She read aloud the letter she wrote to the Cleverleys apologizing for the use of Bob’s name.
Ennis School District voters will go to the polls on May 3 to decide the election and vote on two mill levies – the general fund levy and a $60,000 a year building reserve levy that will be in place for five years. The Madisonian will have election coverage online at www.madisoniannews.com as soon as any results become available.