In small-town, rural Montana, the system works.
A county superintendent of schools in the sparsely populated sections of the state is often the single authority — before the state’s Office of Public Instruction gets involved — for the county’s schools, and intervenes when issues arise on the school board.
“They serve a far greater purpose” in a rural county than they do in a populous county, said Dennis Parman, deputy to state Superintendent of Schools Denise Juneau.
But in Yellowstone County, where the school districts — including Billings School District 2, the state’s largest — are run by their own superintendent and school board. They don’t need the additional support of a county schools chief.
At least, that’s what Yellowstone County commissioners believe.
Three years ago, the three commissioners voted to combine the office with the county treasurer and assessor.
In Yellowstone County, that combined office is held by Max Lenington.
“For a long, long time there hasn’t been the need for a full-time county superintendent of schools,” said Commissioner Jim Reno, who led the charge to consolidate the office.
Lenington two weeks ago brought attention to the office during a furor over allegations he plagiarized a blunt, anti-Obama letter to the editor in the Sunday Billings Gazette.
During the fallout, it became apparent that many county residents were unclear about the role of the Yellowstone County superintendent of schools.
A secretary in that office does more with the schools than Lenington does, Reno said.
The office of the county superintendent of schools was established decades ago by state law, meaning an individual county doesn’t have the authority to abolish the position.
Otherwise, Reno said, they’d probably do it.
In the days of one-room school houses, where it was just a group of students and an instructor, the county superintendent of schools made sure the teacher had the proper certification and that the school was functioning correctly.
“They were kind of out there on their own,” Reno said.
But these days, schools have principals and districts have their own superintendents and boards. A district superintendent works under the direction of the school board, carrying out the policies created by trustees.
They work with district staff to make sure classroom curriculum follows state standards and that schools are warm, safe and dry.
As the role of district superintendent has grown over the decades, the need for a county schools chief has diminished.
Still, in the state’s rural counties, chances are good the county superintendent of schools is still the one person running the show.
“They’re kinda it,” OPI’s Parman said.
Under state law, the county superintendent of schools is still required to sign teaching certificates. So once a year, the hundreds of teachers in Yellowstone County must have their teaching credentials signed by Lennington.
Again, it’s a secretary who does the bulk of the work, rubber-stamping Lennington’s signature on the documents.
Also, parents who wish to register for homeschooling must visit Lenington’s office to pick up the paperwork and get the certification required by the state.
Despite holding the title, Lenington receives no extra pay for being the county superintendent of schools. He’s paid $90,000 a year, the salary set by the county when Lenington was still just treasurer and assessor.
The state also requires the county superintendent of schools to have a state school administrators certificate.
Lenington has no certificate, so the county contracts out to Dan Martin, a retired administrator with SD2.
Under state law, only a school board can expel a student. When that happens and the student wants to appeal the decision, that appeal is handled by the county superintendent of schools.
Were that to happen in Yellowstone County, Martin would handle the appeal.
For Reno, the goal is to shrink county government as much as possible and find more efficient ways to run county business.
Consolidating the office of county superintendent was simply one way to do that.
“It works,” Reno said.