SD2's interim chief will focus on budgets and relationships

2011-11-16T00:15:00Z SD2's interim chief will focus on budgets and relationshipsBy ROB ROGERS Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
November 16, 2011 12:15 am  • 

Jack Copps nearly spent an entire weekend going over the budget for Billings School District 2.

"There are going to be some very difficult moments," he said.

Copps, who was selected by the SD2 board last week to serve as interim superintendent, said he plans to focus on two things for the next seven months he's running the district: getting a handle on the 2012-2013 budget and repairing relationships within the district.

"I've always believed that you can test the quality of any organization -- private or public -- by looking at the quality of the relationships in that organization," he said.

He'll earn $18,000 from now until June and won't take medical benefits. He said he chose $18,000 because it was less than what starting SD2 teachers make.

Copps joins the district at a turbulent time. Strife between district employees and Superintendent Keith Beeman -- which had long simmered through the school year and into the summer -- bubbled over in September and eventually led to Beeman's departure from SD2.

He was followed by board Chairwoman Barbara Bryan, who resigned last month.

Copps, who led SD2 the four years previous to Beeman, was hired last week by a divided board that voted 5-3 to bring him back to work through June.

"I really am appreciative that I have the opportunity to serve this school district again," he said.

But, he said, "I would have preferred that vote was unanimous."

In an effort to bring some unity to the board and the superintendent, trustees will hold a retreat with Copps later this year to figure out their priorities and goals.

Current Chairwoman Teresa Stroebe is confident in Copps' ability to strengthen relationships within the district and the community. She's also hopeful that Copps' long experience with school finance will help the district resolve some of its concerns regarding SD2's $100 million budget.

Since he retired last year, Copps has been teaching an educational leadership class at Montana State University Billings, which includes a course on school finance.

A projected budget shortfall in the millions of dollars looms large on the district's horizon. Complicating the matter is the lack of a chief financial officer within SD2.

"This district is clearly at this point without a CFO," Copps said.

The district's previous director of finance, Thomas Harper, a certified public accountant, left the district last spring to take over as finance director for Des Moines Public Schools in Iowa.

In his place, Beeman hired Josh Middleton, superintendent of Laurel Public Schools to be SD2's assistant superintendent of finances, and Patricia Hubbard, to be director of business services.

Both were great hires for the district, but neither of them were expected to be full-time stewards of the budget and neither of them are CPAs, Copps said.

In fact, the district's only CPA right now is board clerk Leo Hudetz.

Stroebe said the district can solve its budget problems using the skill sets of all these people.

"We can put all those pieces together," she said. "I think we're going to be OK."

Copps is confident the board and the district will find a way through.

In the meantime, he has been visiting schools and reconnecting with staff and students.

"If I get frustrated (at the central office), I just go out and look at kindergarten class," he said.

He feels better and it helps him keep perspective, he said.

Contact Rob Rogers at rrogers@billingsgazette.com or 657-1231.

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