SD2 race pits incumbent against classroom volunteer

2014-04-21T00:15:00Z 2014-04-21T16:37:04Z SD2 race pits incumbent against classroom volunteerBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Janna Hafer has been plugged into Billings Public Schools in some way her whole life.

She’s a product of the system, having graduated from Senior High in 1971. Her children attended School District 2, two graduating from Senior and two graduating from West.

“I remember it being a positive experience and I want that to continue,” she said.

In August she was appointed to the board, replacing Pam Ellis, who had resigned over the summer. She’s now running for the seat outright in this spring’s school board elections.

Running against her is Virgil Middendorf, a computer programmer for the National Weather Service with two children at Beartooth Elementary School.

Middendorf volunteers weekly in both his children’s classrooms and represents Beartooth on the district’s parent council.

“Their education is important to me,” he said.

Hafer is the CFO and co-owner of High Plains Architects with her husband, Randy.

In the short time she’s been on the board, she’s served on the calendar committee, worked on the Safe Routes for Schools project and sat on the curriculum review board that examined Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian” when it was contested by parents last fall.

It’s satisfying work, she said, and she wants to continue to be a part of it.

Middendorf, who’s been regularly attending district meetings for the past two years, first took an interest in serving on the board when Ellis resigned last summer. He and Hafer were the only two candidates to apply for her seat.

With his children in school, he said he has “skin in the game.” He wants to make sure his kids receive the best education. He also believes in contested elections, something that’s long been an issue in SD2 board races.

“I’ve been bothered for years at not having a choice on the ballot,” he said.

He was first to file this spring and was pleased when Hafer entered the race.

Officially, they’re running for Trustee Zone 2, the area that covers the Heights east of Main Street and most of downtown Billings.

Hafer and Middendorf see student achievement as one of the biggest issues currently facing the district. The zone they represent includes schools that deal with poverty-related issues, like poor school attendance, high dropout rates and low test scores among some populations of students.

There’s a lot the district can do to serve those populations, Hafer said, “as long as you’re aware there are other kids out there who have other needs.”

She applauded the state’s Graduation Matters initiative, which SD2 has used for the past two years. The program has increased the district’s graduation rate.

And she’s pleased to see the district embrace new dual-credit programs that will allow high school students to earn college credit before they graduate.

As a classroom volunteer, Middendorf said he sees firsthand how quickly the achievement gap widens between students with good support at home and those who don’t have the same support network.

“I don’t know how to address that,” he said.

But it’s something he’d like to see the board tackle.

Both candidates talked about the district’s $122 million bond that voters passed last November and the problems with state funding of large school districts.

Middendorf believes SD2 has gone to great lengths to rebuild community trust and that mismanagement of the bond would irreparably damage that trust. It’s vital the district keep its promises, he said.

Hafer was originally one of two trustees who voted against running the bond, concerned about its size and the district’s ability to run the two new schools it would build. However, once the board approved placing the bond on the ballot, she joined other trustees in helping to campaign for its passage.

“It passed,” she said. “And that was huge. Now we will just have to deal with these issues.”

Middendorf sees the board having to make lots of big decisions on finances in the next few years. He wants to be a part of that, knowing it will have a direct impact not just on his children but on all students in the district.

“And the students have to be first,” he said.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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