In the midst of the controversy surrounding the Ennis School Board, communication with the community and at the school is paramount for both of this year’s school board candidates.
For challenger Lisa Frye the dialogue needs to begin between the school board and the community and the teachers as to their concerns about everything from budgeting to superintendent Doug Walsh’s contracts.
“There needs to be a dialogue about the school,” Frye said. “There needs to be more questions asked and answered.”
Frye has lived in Ennis since 2003 and has one child who is a student at Ennis High School and another who will enter kindergarten next year. She works for the Madison County Treasurer in the Motor Vehicle Department in Virginia City. She has never held public office.
For incumbent Brett Owens, the communication between the school board and the community is getting much better and the communication between the school board and the teachers and staff remains strong. Right now public involvement stems from controversy around the school board, but still any involvement is good.
“We need to get the public more involved and they have been more involved but it’s been a select few,” Owens said.
Owens is an Ennis native who grew up on his family’s ranch on North Meadow Creek. He graduated from Ennis High School and Montana State University and enlisted in the Air Force where he became a pilot. After retiring in 2007, he moved his family back to work his father’s ranch. He has four children and two have already graduated from Ennis and are at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.
This school board election comes in the midst of a lawsuit involving the Ennis School Board members and superintendent Doug Walsh.
The lawsuit was filed last August by Ennis resident Dave Kelley and focuses on how the school board levied taxes to pay for the new school, as well as Walsh’s employment contract.
The suit claims the school board illegally used money from their adult education and transportation funds to build the school and that Walsh’s contract is fraudulent because it doesn’t represent his actual duties and defrauds the Montana Teacher’s Retirement system.
The school board needs new leadership and an end to what Frye called “divisive policies.” These included Walsh’s contracts and the expenditure of tax dollars on the new school without providing citizens an opportunity to vote.
“You show me a public school in the United States that the public didn’t vote on,” Frye said. “If I would have been given the opportunity to vote on a new school I most likely would have voted yes. Most people feel that way.”
Owens wouldn’t discuss issues involved in the lawsuit, but he did say that one reason he was running for re-election was to see the new school be built as well as making sure the focus continues to be on kids and providing them a quality education.
The school board was able to fund the new school without going into debt, which probably saved the district $4.6 million in interest payments and fees, Owens said.
“The nice thing about it is we’re not having to do a levy on it,” he said.
But moving forward, funding for the school district is going to be a key issue, Owens said.
He pointed to projected cutbacks in school funding from the state level.
The school board has already decided to ask voters to support a $103,000 general fund levy, which would be about 1.7 mills, in anticipation of a general fund shortfall. If state funding fills in more of the budget than expected, the school district could levy a lesser amount, he said.
But the idea that the school might have to make cut backs in staff is misleading, Frye said. The school district has enough reserves to make up shortfalls from the state and recent talks about cuts in staff are harmful.
“There’s no teacher who should be in fear of losing their job because of money,” she said. “I would say that it’s absurd that they’re talking about pink slips.”
Owens understands why conversations about cutbacks cause concern. The school board is concerned, but it is limited by state law as to how teachers can be paid. Essentially, teachers and staff must be paid out of the general fund appropriations for that year, he said.
If the state doesn’t adequately fund schools this year and voters turn down a general fund levy, then cuts may be a reality, Owens said.
“What we’re going to do if they don’t pass a levy is try and cut as far away from the kids as possible,” he said. “We’ll exhaust every other option we have before we have to let any teachers go. The teachers are the ones that are teaching our kids.”
Frye believes that conversation about cuts is another example of the lack of communication between school staff and the school board and administration.
Teachers at the school don’t feel free to voice concerns or frustrations, she said.
“Teachers should feel free to come to anybody,” Frye said.
Owens disagreed that communication between the staff and the school board is lacking.
“I think our communication with the staff has been pretty good,” he said. “We need to make sure we maintain those lines of communication.”
Much of Frye’s criticism of the current school board involves Walsh.
The school board should have asked more questions about how the budgeting was being done for the new school and about Walsh’s contracts, she said.
“I believe there was some questions that should have been asked a long time ago about how this money was being raised and where it’s spent,” Frye said. “I think the school board needs to understand that they’re in control.”
Owens rejects the notion the school board isn’t asking questions and is not in control.
School board members work as a team with the administration at the school, he said. He referred to an old adage he learned during his years in the Air Force.
“We trust but we verify,” Owens said. “We have to rely on (Walsh’s) advice, but if we don’t think it sounds right we look into it. We don’t blindly accept what he tells us.”
For him part of this gets back to communication with the community. The school board is making a better effort now at getting meeting announcements out to the public and looking at other times to hold meetings that are more convenient for the public.
Frye believes strongly that right now the school board needs more transparency about their budgeting and spending.
“Transparency is very important, especially now,” she said.
Getting past the current controversy will be tough and will take “honest and open dialogue,” Frye said.
Also, resolution to the lawsuit would help, as well as the results of an independent audit of the school district’s books that was ordered by the Madison County Commissioners should provide some answers, she said.
Ultimately, Owens wants the focus of the school board and the community to be on providing students with the best education possible, and that is going to be his focus if he’s re-elected.
“I’d like to make sure we keep education as a priority and one of the ways we do that is to retain and draw in motivated and well-qualified teachers and I think we have been,” he said.
Frye has challenged Owens to a debate at the Madison Valley Public Library April 23 at 10 a.m. When asked about the debate Tuesday, Owens wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to attend. He said he planned on attending a candidate forum that is being planned at the Ennis High School. The time for that forum wasn’t available at press time.
Absentee ballots for the election will go out soon. The election will be held May 3. All residents of the Ennis School District will be able to vote.
Editor’s note: Look for an explanation of the different school district boundaries and where people will vote in next week’s Madisonian.