Ballots have been mailed to area residents and for the first time in several years some Billings voters will have a choice in who they vote onto the Billings School District 2 board.
Running to represent Zone 4 -- the neighborhoods immediately north and west of downtown -- is incumbent Kathy Aragon, who has served on the board since 2007, and Dennis Johnson, retired Billings Senior High track and field coach and math teacher.
Trustee Allen Halter is seeking election for his seat representing Zone 6, the northwest corner of Billings. Halter, one of six candidates to apply, was appointed to the board in December after Trustee Barbara Bryan resigned in late October.
He'll face Mary Jo Fox, another of the six candidates to apply for Bryan's seat. Fox, a former trustee who served from 2005-2010, was forced to resign from the board in 2010 when she moved from her home in the Heights to the Indian Cliffs development, which sits just inside Zone 6.
Two contested races out of the three is a shift for SD2. Last year, four seats were up for election and each of them ran uncontested.
Johnson retired from the school district last year and decided to run for the board shortly thereafter. A growing sense of frustration over board infighting and politicking pushed him to the decision, he said.
He likened watching a board meeting to viewing a reality show on television and said the culture there must change.
"They've accomplished absolutely nothing," he said. "I would push hard to try and get a code of behavior adopted."
He and Aragon have a lot of mutual respect. Johnson taught Aragon's daughter in Advanced Placement calculus and coached her on the track.
Aragon was happy to see someone like Johnson volunteer to run for the board. But she said new trustees face a steep learning curve, something she's already accomplished over the last five years.
Where Johnson sees many of the district's issues as board-based, Aragon sees district troubles as a result of poor planning.
"Long-term planning is vital for this district," she said. "And it's something we struggle with."
Along with planning, she said it's necessary for the district to collaborate with the city and other government entities as it plans for the future.
To that end, she and city Planner Candi Beaudry spent the last three years securing a planning grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Just last month the agency announced the city and SD2 would receive its Small Growth Technical Assistance Program grant. With it, the EPA will come to Billings, work with the community and create a model plan that could be applied to the various planning needs of the city and school district.
Johnson applauds Aragon's efforts. But, he wants to see the board learn to be more formal, respectful and goal-driven.
"They need to change the way they do business," he said.
Fox decided to run again after watching much of the district's turmoil over the last year. She works for the Yellowstone Boys & Girls Ranch Foundation and with her previous board experience, she said she's got skills to offer.
"I have a track record of serving and caring about kids," she said.
Halter admitted his first few months on the board were more intense than he'd anticipated.
"It's been a huge learning experience," he said.
Still, he's enjoyed it and believes he has skills to offer the district. Halter is general manager and salesman for Allegra Marketing Print and Mail and has served as West High's booster club president.
"I want to know the facts and vote for the kids," he said.
Both Fox and Halter agree that at some point -- likely in the near future -- the district will need a school on the West End. Both agree overcrowded classrooms in the district are one of SD2's biggest issues.
Ballots are due by May 8 and as the newly elected board moves into the summer and into the next school year, trustees will face some weighty issues, including budget shortfalls, adopting and implementing a new national curriculum and changing leadership.
The board is in the process of hiring a new superintendent.
The Omaha, Neb.-based search firm McPherson & Jacobson just submitted to the board a list of 18 applicants; the top picks will fly to Billings to interview the week of the election.
So it will be the new board that hires SD2's next superintendent.
The board deliberately chose to leave the selection process until after elections to give the new board ownership in the superintendent pick.
Running uncontested for the high school District A seat is board Chairwoman Teresa Stroebe. Her name will not appear on the ballot.