Jack Copps was the right leader at the right time for Billings School District 2.
“In all respects he has done an absolutely marvelous job,” said Trustee Joel Guthals.
Today is Copps’ last day at the district after four years at the helm. At 73 and after 49 years in education, he’s decided it’s time to move on.
“It’s important work and I’ve enjoyed it very much,” Copps said. “I’m going to miss it a lot.”
School District 2 in many ways was a different place in 2006 than it is now. At the time, the district was still healing from the bitter teacher strike in late 2001, and the board had just dumped Superintendent Rod Svee. The district hadn’t passed a mill levy in almost six years.
At the time, Copps was working in Helena as executive director of the Montana Quality Education Coalition. Under Copps’ leadership, the group successfully sued the state for not having defined what a quality education is in Montana and for not providing funding to support that definition.
It was a significant victory, upheld by the state Supreme Court, that forced legislators to retool how Montana schools are funded.
“Then Jack came to Billings,” Guthals said.
Kathy Kelker, now executive director of Billings Head Start, was board president in 2006. She and another trustee had connections to Copps and “floated a balloon” his way to see if he’d be interested in coming to Billings, she said.
When he indicated he was interested, “I just started to weep,” Kelker said. “Jack had so much credibility and so much experience.”
He was just what SD2 needed, she said.
“We needed someone who’d be a champion for this district,” Trustee Mary Jo Fox said during last week’s board meeting. “We were really blessed to have Jack Copps walk in the door.”
Copps immediately made a point of getting out into the community and being seen by parents, business leaders and civic officials. Four years later, it’s one of the traits for which he’s best known.
“He was the right person because immediately things started to calm down,” Kelker said.
He met regularly with business leaders and Billings Chamber of Commerce members. Parents and business leaders talk about seeing him and his wife, Penny, working booths at Saturday Live, the district’s fall fundraiser.
It was something Keith Cook, regional president at First Interstate Bank in Billings, found impressive. “He was very visible in the community,” Cook said. “He was always making himself visible.”
Cook worked with Copps on levy campaigns and said what made him such a great leader was his ability to draw people in. Many in the business community felt ownership in SD2 because of Copps’ outreach, he said.
Kelker agreed. “It’s his manner with people,” she said. “He just inspires that loyalty.”
She remembered a time early in Copps’ tenure when he got a call in the dead of night informing him that pipes had burst at Skyview High and much of the building was a mess.
“He was there immediately,” she said. “Every time there was some kind of crisis, he was there.”
His ability to work with people — sometimes in the most delicate of circumstances — saved the district heartache and money, Fox said.
In 2007, one of the district’s middle school guidance counselors was arrested after police caught him peeking in the bathroom window of one of his former students. Working with union officials, Copps was able to get an immediate resignation from the counselor and remove him from the school with little fuss, Kelker said.
His ability to deftly handle those types of situations has protected the district from liability issues and lawsuits, Fox said.
“We cannot measure how much he’s saved this district,” she said.
For many, Copps’ willingness to be out in the community working and volunteering alongside parents, educators and community leaders simply showcased his strength as SD2’s superintendent.
After his first year on the job, the district was successful in passing two bonds worth $4.3 million for the elementary and high school districts. The district was successful again in passing another two mill levies in May — one of them a technology levy, which was a first for the district.
Copps came to the district with a storied past.
Prior to taking the helm at the Montana Quality Education Coalition in 2004, Copps was the Helena School District superintendent and later worked as the deputy state superintendent of schools in the Montana Office of Public Instruction.
He retired in 1999 to work as an independent education consultant, handling issues management, school improvement and the administration of the state Gear Up Program. He will start this fall teaching an educational leadership class at Montana State University Billings.
Still, of all the positions he’s held, it’s his role at SD2 that’s earned a special place in his life.
“This is going to be the job most difficult to leave,” Copps said.
Contact Rob Rogers at email@example.com or 657-1231.