Gazette Opinion: New Billings superintendent must have super skills

2010-02-23T00:00:00Z Gazette Opinion: New Billings superintendent must have super skills The Billings Gazette
February 23, 2010 12:00 am

What should Billings Public School trustees seek in a replacement for Superintendent Jack Copps?

• A bright, passionate advocate for children and high-quality public education.

• A great communicator, who can listen to public concerns and convey complex alternatives clearly to trustees and the community.

• An honest, straight-forward leader who inspires trust and confidence in Billings Public Schools among students, staff, parents and the larger community.

• An excellent manager who is well-versed in responsible budgeting and in labor relations who will work with employees to continuously improve and update educational services.

• An educator who sees the critical connections between schools and community, and will be a solid partner with local businesses and civic organizations to strengthen those ties for the benefit of students and the future of Billings.

• An articulate spokesperson for Billings Public Schools who can present the needs and concerns of Montana’s largest school district to the governor and state legislators.

A Montana background would be a plus. The state’s school funding system is exceedingly complex (too complex.) The Billings superintendent will need to know or quickly learn how state law and politics affect Montana public schools.

Copps has all of these qualifications, but it was never expected that he would have a long tenure here. He was well beyond the age that most educators retire when he took on the challenge of leading Montana’s biggest school district. He celebrated his 72nd birthday last year. Trustees ought to consider hiring a younger superintendent — somebody less than 69 years old.

It would be wonderful to find a superintendent who does a great job and is willing to stay in Billings long enough to see fall 2010 elementary students graduate from high school.

The superintendent that trustees plan to hire within a few weeks will be the fifth Billings has seen in the 21st century. James Kimmet, who started as superintendent in 1995 after the resignation of Peter Caparelli, had been on the job six years when trustees decided to make a leadership change in mid-contract in 2000. Long-time School District 2 administrators Jo Swain and Dave Irion were tapped to handle the superintendent duties for a year. Then Swain was the sole interim superintendent before the board suspended a search and hired her for the “permanent” job. She retired in 2003 after a divisive teachers’ strike. The board hired Rod Svee from a field of 20 applicants. He served three years, but trustees didn’t renew his contract. Copps, former superintendent in Helena and former deputy director at the Montana Office of Public Instruction, was hired as the one-year interim superintendent, starting in July 2006. Trustees were so pleased with his performance that they rehired him. Copps announced his retirement, effective in July. His interim appointment has turned into the longest tenure (four years) of a Billings superintendent in the past decade.

In short, the Billings superintendent needs to be able to do everything well in a district with 30 school buildings, 1,800 employees, 15,500 students and an annual budget of more than $100 million.

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