Gazette opinion: Open communication key for Copps, SD2

2011-11-16T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: Open communication key for Copps, SD2 The Billings Gazette
November 16, 2011 12:10 am

Once again, Billings Public Schools has called on Jack Copps to serve as interim superintendent.

The veteran educator’s latest stint starts with more daunting challenges than did his first. Copps reported for duty on Nov. 10, the morning after the board voted to hire him for the remainder of the school year. That decision followed months of turmoil over his predecessor’s decisions and management style.

Fortunately for Billings Public Schools, the district still has on board many dedicated staff members in the schools and in administration. Unfortunately, the district no longer has Thomas Harper, the finance director who restored trust in the district’s budget, nor Rich Whitney, the professional engineer who kept the district’s aging facilities functional. Both left during Superintendent Keith Beeman’s tenure.

Assistant superintendents Gail Surwill and Josh Middleton have handled the superintendent’s role for the past several weeks. Their skills will be needed greatly in the months ahead.

Few Montana educators have Copps’ depth of experience, and he spent the past year teaching college graduate courses in public school finance. The most important talent Copps brings back to the school district is his ability to communicate and bring people together to support and improve our public schools. He did this before, we expect he can do it again.

He will need the school board as a partner, not an adversary. The board split 5-3 in voting to select Copps as interim superintendent. All eight trustees must now support the decision of the board.

Urgent matters demand the attention of the administration and the board: Elementary enrollment is increasing. A large budget shortfall is projected for next year. The board and administration must plan for the changes that funding limits will require, and communicate options clearly to the community.

Copps has recommended scheduling a board retreat to discuss the budget process before the regular December meeting and Chairwoman Teresa Stroebe has directed him to find a facilitator. In his interview with the board, Copps suggested recreating the Budgeting for Results Committee that included community volunteers who reviewed school budget proposals. The board also needs to complete appointments to the audit committee, which hasn’t met yet this school year. The district desperately needs the expertise of community CPAs and financial experts who have volunteered for this committee.

Copps told The Gazette on Tuesday that his first priorities are the budget and building up relationships with the community and school staff.

“The quality of relationships says a lot about a business and its effectiveness in fulfilling its mission,” he said.

We also look forward to hearing more good news about projects, successes and events happening in our 30 local public schools. Administration policy during Beeman’s tenure discouraged sharing news — good or bad. We call on Copps to open the lines of communication. Billings people want and need to be connected to their schools.

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