Eric Olsen doesn’t shy away from controversy.
One of the founders and leaders of the Tea Party group Montana Shrugged, he addressed a group of about 50 people gathered on the courthouse lawn for a Tax Day rally on Tuesday, explaining his decision to run for a seat on the School District 2 board.
“It’s a thankless job,” he told them. “Everyone yells at you, and I thought, ‘I’m pretty good at yelling.’ “
He believes the Tea Party should have a presence on the school board, he said, and he’s ready to do some yelling if he’s elected.
His opponent, Susan Layton, is not much of a yeller.
“We have to cooperate,” she said. “Otherwise, everything is at a standstill.”
Layton and her husband, Bryan, own and operate Great Harvest Bread Co. on Poly Drive and have four little kids in school.
“I guess not so little anymore. I have an eighth-grader who starts high school next year,” she said.
Olsen and Layton are running for the seat representing Zone B, which covers the areas south and west of Billings. That seat is currently held by Travis Smith, who chose not to run for re-election.
Zone B includes non-SD2 elementary schools, like Blue Creek, Elder Grove and Elysian. The Lockwood area is Zone A, and it’s represented by Teresa Stroebe, whose term expires next year.
Olsen has had two children go through the public school system and he’s got four grandchildren in school now at Elder Grove and West High.
His two overriding concerns are taxes and student learning, he said.
Students today aren’t getting a “proper education,” he said. “We’re not focusing on the three Rs.”
He pointed to his granddaughter’s class, where they spent three weeks learning about dinosaurs.
“That’s a waste of time,” he said.
Olsen works in the energy industry as a petroleum engineer, drilling for oil and other natural resources in Wyoming. It’s made him a passionate advocate for increasing oil, coal and natural gas production as the vehicle for more state revenue, not increasing taxes.
If schools want better funding, he said, they shouldn’t raise taxes by running levies and bonds. Rather, they need to pressure the state to tap more of Montana’s natural resources.
Layton was part of the PTA when her children attended Poly Drive Elementary School and she’s similarly involved now at Elder Grove where her children currently go to school.
As a business owner, she understands the importance of community dialogue and being a good neighbor. She and her husband’s business has found success and she believes running for school board is a way to give back to a community that’s been supportive of her.
“I believe successful schools are tied to successful communities,” she said.
For her, the biggest issues facing the district are the bond construction projects and the redrawing of school boundaries that SD2 will undertake over the next year.
The $122 million bond passed by voters last fall will be used to build two new middle schools and drastically renovate McKinley and Broadwater elementary schools. It also will be used on dozens of deferred maintenance projects at the majority of SD2’s other elementary schools.
Pointing to the deferred maintenance projects, Layton said school funding is another issue facing the board and that there will be a lot of work making sure SD2 gets its fair share of funding from the state.
“I want to see those kids have the funding that they need,” she said.
At the same time, the district needs to be smart with its money. “It’s important we keep the trust of the taxpayers,” she said.
Olsen wants to be an agent of change on the school board and is ready to do what’s necessary to bring attention to those items he feels are most important.
“We need to get the rhetoric back to the kids and the taxpayers,” he said.
Layton hopes to bring open dialogue and cooperation.
“I tend to be optimistic about most things,” she said.