With a solid mixture of energy and confidence, Doug Reisig, the third superintendent candidate to interview with the School District 2 board, made a strong case for himself as the next leader of Billings schools.
"I know there are challenges here," he said.
But those challenges are opportunities to improve SD2, he said. The district has had a tradition of welcoming all students and making them feel like they have a place in the world. That was his experience as a student here, he said.
"I want those Billings kids to feel the way I felt going to Billings public schools," he said.
Reisig, superintendent of the Hellgate Elementary School District outside of Missoula, was born and raised in Billings and graduated from West High. His mother still lives in town, and he and his wife travel here from Missoula regularly.
Noting that the community had expressed a desire to have a superintendent who knows the Montana way, Reisig said he wasn't sure what is the Montana way but said he understands the Billings way.
"The Billings way is you're honest, you're truthful with people," he said. "You're genuine, you're respectful to people."
Reisig stressed repeatedly in his interview the importance of keeping students first in district planning. Students have to know that staff and district officials are interested, engaged and invested in their success if they're going to achieve anything, he said.
"You don't have the right to dislike our kids on company time," he said.
He plans to start every day by visiting a school and greeting students if he's hired to lead School District 2, he said.
Reisig also stressed multiple times the importance of working with the community and building trust. Right now, he said, SD2 needs the community. But the community also needs the school district, he told the board.
Sue Meredith, principal at Fred Moodry Middle School in Anaconda, where Reisig was superintendent of Anaconda School District No. 10 before he took over at Hellgate in 2000, said Reisig has always put student needs first.
"He was very child-centered," she said.
Meredith was a teacher first under Reisig and then became a principal in the district. As such, she has observed his leadership in both realms.
"He was fantastic to work with in both areas," she said.
He's a respected leader in Hellgate, said Scott McKenzie, president of the teachers union there. He may not always be well liked by everyone, McKenzie said, but staff trust and respect his judgement.
"He lays out a clear plan of what he wants," he said.
Some may not like that plan, but most will follow, McKenzie said.
Hellgate and Anaconda are small districts. Hellgate is an elementary school district with only three schools. SD2 has 34 schools, a sizable homeless student population and a large percentage of students living near or under the federal poverty line.
Still, Meredith and McKenzie expressed confidence that Reisig could make the jump.
"There's going to be a learning curve for anyone" coming to SD2, Meredith said.
What will aid Reisig is his ability to connect with people and communicate his vision.
"He has such good communication skills it won't matter," Meredith said.
Robin Hall, a trustee on the Hellgate board, said Reisig has been an outstanding superintendent.
"I don't want to see him go," she said with a laugh.
Reisig was instrumental in passing a multimillion-dollar bond for Hellgate to expand its buildings a few years ago, she said. And he's deftly kept the district in the black.
"I can't imagine anyone better than Doug at understanding the school budget system," she said.
During the interview Wednesday night, Trustee Connie Wardell made the point that small rural school districts in Montana get the state money they need and the big AA districts don't.
"You are funded adequately, we are not," Wardell told him.
Reisig acknowledged that and told her whether in a big school district or a small one, "Montana is still Montana and people are people."
He said he'd advocate for SD2 both in the community and at the state level to get it the money it needs.
Reisig has never applied to another school district during his 12 years in Hellgate. But as he watched from afar the struggles SD2 has faced over the past few years, he decided now is the time to sign up.
"Billing holds a special place in my heart," he said. "That's why I applied."