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Head of the class

State superintendent Denise Juneau's improbable rise is impossible to ignore

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When Denise was in second grade, the family moved to Browning, her father's hometown on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Dotted with rolling hay and alfalfa fields, it's home to roughly 9,000 enrolled members of the Blackfeet Nation. Many of their neighbors struggle with the effects of lingering poverty. Stan and Carol Juneau, however, were both employed as educators and, as such, enjoyed regular paychecks.

"Anywhere else we'd probably be middle class, but there we were a wealthy family," Denise Juneau says. Education and politics were part of the day-to-day discourse in the Juneau household. Through those conversations, Carol and Stan made it a point to teach their children to assert themselves. "You have to speak up, don't be afraid," Carol recalls saying. "It's your right."

Carol says it took time for Denise to embody that personal strength. She wasn't naturally aggressive. In fact, she was actually a shy kid, hiding behind the legs of her parents when meeting strangers, peering out to investigate foreign faces. "She was just wanting to be comfortable with people, making sure she could trust them," Carol Juneau recalls.

Denise Juneau receiving a legislative briefing from her staff. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Denise Juneau receiving a legislative briefing from her staff.

Over the years, though, Denise learned valuable lessons from watching her mother fight for Native rights. When Carol ran for the Montana House in 1998, Denise, then 31, got her first real taste of politicking. Carol went on to serve 12 years in Helena, consistently advocating for education and to advance indigenous voting rights.

Another lesson Denise learned from her mother was the importance of home. Her parents instilled a sense of pride in the reservation and a commitment to improving the quality of life. Although Denise earned a bachelor's in English from Montana State University, a law degree from the University of Montana and a master's degree from Harvard Graduate School of Education, she went to her mother's old home on the Fort Berthold Reservation in 1994. Denise taught 9th and 10th grade English and coached speech and debate.

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On a recent Monday morning Denise Juneau wears black slacks, a gray jacket and beaded rainbow earrings. Her hair is cut in a tidy bob and her fingernails are done in a French manicure. By the end of this long day, full of formulating legislative strategies, making public appearances and planning a weekend trip to Harvard to speak at her alma mater, her bob isn't quite as tidy. But her enthusiasm hasn't waned.

"You hit the wall now and then, but otherwise it's fine," she says.

Juneau believes she's making progress in Montana schools. During the 2011-12 school year, for instance, graduation rates reached 83.9 percent, up from 82.2 percent the year prior. Similarly, test scores show that 86 percent of public school students were proficient in reading last year compared to 78 percent during the 2005-06 school year.

In light of those accomplishments and her emerging national profile, it remains curious how Juneau could find herself in such a tight race during the last election. But there's one aspect to Juneau's leadership and stubbornness that has created adversaries. She surmises that it was her work on the Montana Board of Land Commissioners that made her a target during her re-election campaign.

"I think the negative things that came out this election cycle were all Land Board based," Juneau says.

In 2009, less than a year after she stepped into her position as superintendant of public instruction, the Land Board was charged with weighing the benefits of leasing public land on the Powder River Basin for coal development. The board—comprising the governor, attorney general, auditor, secretary of state and superintendent—is charged with leasing and selling the state's natural resources on behalf of the public. Money generated by Land Board deals goes to public schools. Therefore, individual members have a significant amount of sway to dictate management of the state's publicly owned land.

From left to right, Office of Public Instruction staffer Deborah Halliday, Denise Juneau and OPI communication director Allyson Hagen at the Capitol. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • From left to right, Office of Public Instruction staffer Deborah Halliday, Denise Juneau and OPI communication director Allyson Hagen at the Capitol.

During the board's many months of deliberations over a proposal to allow Arch Coal to mine the Powder River Basin, Juneau attended contentious public meetings and heard both proponents and opponents argue their cases. She also read up on environmental law and, along with members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, toured the mining area, which has been home to Plains Indians for thousands of years.

"It's a very pristine area," Juneau says. "I worry about the water down there. There's not a lot for the ranchers and agricultural things that go on. The water is a huge issue and just the cultural significance—there are a lot of artisan springs that have cultural significance for the Northern Cheyenne."

Juneau took those concerns to heart and says she felt compelled to vote against the deal. During the final vote on the project, she was the only Land Board member to say "no."

Environmentalists praised her; Montana Conservation Voters even granted her the 2010 "Conservation Champion Award."

The "no" vote also earned Juneau enemies. In the months leading up to her re-election bid, her challenger, Sandy Welch, accused the superintendent of playing politics to the detriment of Montana's schoolchildren.

"Denise Juneau is more interested in her political career and the special interests that support her political career," Welch said during a recorded address after Juneau's Democratic National Convention speech. "This is why Denise Juneau is in public office."

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