Cole Pugh is the superintendent of a school district in Texas that has nearly the same number of students as School District 2 in Billings.
The Eagle Mountain-Saginaw Independent School District serves portions of Fort Worth, several outlying communities and rural areas of Tarrant County, and has a school population of slightly more than 16,000 students. In District 2, the student population is just over 15,000.
That’s the main point of similarity. In two other respects, the districts are very different.
In Billings, the district has had a difficult time persuading voters to approve mill levy requests. Residents turned down three of five elementary school levies in the past 10 years, and four of six high school levies.
In Pugh’s district in Texas, voters in 2008 approved a mill levy with a whopping price tag of $394 million. The money will be used to renovate older schools and build news ones in the rapidly growing district, including a $130 million high school and a $45 million career and technology center.
Denise Farr, director of operations for the Saginaw Area Chamber of Commerce, said the district had one high school, one middle school and four elementary schools when she moved there 25 years ago. It now has three high schools, five middle schools and “we’re fixing to open our 14th elementary school,” she said.
The other big difference is that there is no teachers union in the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw district. There are teacher organizations, Pugh said, but no collective bargaining.
Nevertheless, he said, employees with complaints are encouraged to take them directly to the board of education or to school administrators, who have a good record of resolving disputes.
And though his current district is on solid footing thanks to the 2008 mill levy, Pugh said, he also knows how to deal with adversity.
When he was hired in his previous superintendent job, in San Angelo, Texas, his predecessor had been indicted on theft charges and “they were in pretty serious financial condition,” Pugh said. He had to close several schools and preside over numerous layoffs.
Lanny Layman, president of the San Angelo Board of Education, who was a new board member when Pugh was hired, said “we did have to make some tough decisions, and he helped us with those.”
Layman said he was critical of the way Pugh handled some of the cutbacks, but overall he credited him with getting the district back on its feet.
Pugh is also a candidate for the superintendent’s job in Lincoln, Neb., and was an unsuccessful finalist in a district in Little Rock, Ark. He said he isn’t a candidate anywhere else, and that he is particularly interested in Billings because he and his family have traveled to Montana in the past, visiting Big Sky and Yellowstone National Park.
He said he is looking to leave Texas after 30 years in education there because he wants to take on a new challenge and learn something new.
He said he would attempt to involve the community in district decisions and try to persuade people that “a good education is important for everyone.”
Although he hopes he would be able to build support for school district funding, he said, he also knows what has to be done when cuts have to be made.
You determine what the district’s needs and priorities are, he said, and “at some point, if you run out of revenue, you have to draw the line.”