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Greg Upham

Greg Upham, a candidate for superintendent for School District 2, speaks to the Board of Trustees during a school board meeting at the Lincoln Education Center in April. 

BETHANY BAKER, Billings Gazette

Billings saw the importance of having a backup plan last week when the New Jersey candidate preferred by six school board members decided he didn’t want to move to our community after all.

Fortunately, when trustees voted to offer Billings Public Schools’ top job to the New Jersey candidate, they also voted – unanimously – to negotiate with Greg Upham if their first choice backed out, which he did three weeks after being chosen.

Upham, a Montana native who is presently assistant superintendent in Helena Public Schools, is enthusiastic about leading Montana’s largest K-12 district. The morning after Ross Kasun declined from New Jersey, Upham was in Billings meeting with school board chairwoman Greta Besch Moen and district attorneys. Later that same day, the district announced that Upham had agreed to a two-year contract starting on July 1 at $165,000, which is about $6,000 less than retiring Billings Superintendent Terry Bouck is making.

“We had agreed that whoever the selection was, we would give 100 percent board support,” Besch Moen said after Upham agreed to a contract on May 3. “I assured Greg of that today.”

Nice save, Billings trustees.

Upham should know that he was the first choice, rather than second, for many Billings folks. Three trustees wanted to hire him rather than Kasun. Billings school administrators, including principals who met all the finalists, favored Upham, who has for years worked to rally all Montana AA districts to work together on legislation and other shared issues.

The April 6 Gazette opinion recommended that trustees pick Upham. He has deep Montana knowledge, a substantial track record of leadership in a large K-12 district, success on Helena’s latest school bond campaign and experience implementing voter-approved bond projects. Upham has been a leader in promoting an increase in advanced placement enrollment in Helena highs schools and improving student ACT scores. He helped set up pre-apprenticeship programs to provide students with job site experience in construction trades. As a Helena high school principal, he improved student mental health services and helped land a $5 million federal grant to build and sustain those services.

Helena is five years into a professional learning communities program that Billings adopted this year to enhance teacher skills and collaboration. Upham can help guide Billings to get the most benefit from the program and, perhaps, overcome problems that he saw in Helena.

Upham has 20 years’ experience in labor contract negotiations, first as a teacher, more recently as an administrator.

Upham has studied the Billings district and is looking to build on its strengths. His background as a career and technical education teacher will be especially helpful in revamping the Career Center and the entire CTE system here to better meet the needs of all 6,000 Billings high school students as well as middle school students.

Billings educates more Native American students from more tribes than any other Montana school district. As a Blackfeet tribal member, Upham will be an excellent role model for Native American students, a group that has historically had lower graduation rates than non-Native students.

“I cannot speak highly enough about Greg,” Trish Klock, president of the Helena teachers union told a Gazette reporter last month. “He definitely holds people accountable, but he always puts kids first.”

Upham comes to Billings with the endorsement of Helena Superintendent Jack Copps, who served two stints as Billings superintendent before returning to Helena. “He is very well prepared to assume the superintendency,” Copps told The Gazette in early April.

Welcome to Billings, Greg Upham. You were always our first choice.